When scientists struggle with a problem for over a decade, few of them think, “I know! I’ll ask computer gamers to help.” That, however, is exactly what Firas Khatib from the University of Washington did. The result: he and his legion of gaming co-authors have cracked a longstanding problem in AIDS research that scientists have puzzled over for years. It took them three weeks.
Khatib’s recruits played Foldit, a programme that reframes fiendish scientific challenges as a competitive multiplayer computer game. It taps into the collective problem-solving skills of tens of thousands of people, most of whom have little or no background in science. Here’s what I wrote about Foldit last year:
Last year, Cooper showed that Foldit’s gamers were better than the Rosetta programme at solving many protein structures. They used a wide range of strategies, they could pick the best places to begin, and they were better at long-term planning. Human intuition trumped mechanical number-crunching.
Khatib’s gamers, bearing names such as Foldit Contenders Group and Foldit Void Crushers Group, had varying degrees of success in the contest. In many of the categories, they did reasonably well but they couldn’t match the best groups. They weren’t as good at using the structures of similar proteins to tweak the ones they were working on. They could also head down dead ends if they started at the wrong place. In one case, their strategy of refining their starting structures to the best possible degree led to one of the “most spectacular successes” in the contest. But mostly, they focused too heavily on tweaking already imperfect solutions that other teams achieved better results by making large-scale changes.
Learning from that lesson, Khatib stepped in himself. He agitated the initial protein structures in many random ways, to create a wide variety of terrible answers that the gamers could then refine. In their attempts, they came up with the best-ranked answer to the most difficult challenge in the competition.
To disable M-PMV’s protease, we need to know exactly what it looks like. Like real scissors, the proteases come in two halves that need to lock together in order to work. If we knew where the halves joined together, we could create drugs that prevent them from uniting. But until now, scientists have only been able to discern the structure of the two halves together. They have spent more than ten years trying to solve structure of a single isolated half, without any success.
The Foldit players had no such problems. They came up with several answers, one of which was almost close to perfect. In a few days, Khatib had refined their solution to deduce the protein’s final structure, and he has already spotted features that could make attractive targets for new drugs.
“This is the first instance that we are aware of in which online gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem,” writes Khatib. “These results indicate the potential for integrating video games into the real-world scientific process: the ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.”
This is a must cite~ Integration is the key word but also crowdsourcing! Scientists play the key organizing role but let group creativity play the breakthrough role. This is what my theory would love to use: ecological research