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Foldit and EteRNA gamers discover protein mysteries, help science out

[ 0 ] Posted by on October 28, 2011


You would think that video games and science don’t have much connection beyond increasing graphics. Well, you would be wrong. Scientists are harnessing gamer’s minds, and their hours and hours of gaming, to further science. How does that work?

AdrienTreuille, a Carnegie Mellon computer scientist, is the creator of two online games – Foldit and EteRNA– that put video gamers to work solving ambitious scientific puzzles. His intention is to make yawn-inducing scientific obscurities like “protein folding” and “RNA synthesis” fun and thought-provoking for gamers.

The results have been surprising, as Foldit and EteRNA players, about 430,000 of them, make discoveries that had eluded scientists and their supercomputers. In October, for example, Foldit players helped resolve a mystery about proteins that could further research into HIV/AIDS. Their work was co-published in the journal Nature.

Players know they’re working on science puzzles, but the games are designed to be fun.

“One of our goals when we made Foldit is to make proteins toy-like, which is actually a technical term from game design,” Treuille said in a recent interview at the PopTech conference. “It should be something you want to play with, like a Lego or a Tinkertoy.

“Proteins are these esoteric things that most people don’t know very much about, but through computer graphics and interaction we were able to make them something you can play with and wiggle and pull — and make them physically real for people. And I think that realness — that toy-like aspect of proteins — is what made it ultimately comprehensible to our players, and allowed them to solve problems that elude computer programs.”

To really understand why this is momentous you have to comprehend a little bit about proteins, which Treuille describes as building blocks for life. If scientists can better appreciate the shapes of proteins, they can do more to create their own, which could lead to new methods of disease prevention and treatment. But they need help deciphering how to use these tools.

“We’re building with, like, completely new materials,” he said, “so we know how to build with hammers but we don’t know how to build with As Gs Cs and Us yet.”

That’s where the games come in. Gamers fundamentally are teaching scientists and computers how to build with genetic code, by playing with the shapes of RNA and proteins to see what works best. In Foldit, they’re awarded points for making proteins that use the least amount of energy. In EteRNA, the newest game, a Stanford lab will physically create a picture of the sequences made in the game.

“When you create a molecule in the game we actually synthesize it — we make it for real and we send you back pictures of what you’ve made,” he said.

Here’s more on how that game works:

“What we actually do is give the players very simple tasks like build a circle, build a star,” he said. “These are tasks that are beyond the limits of science today, but through trial and error and being able to play with real molecules through this computer game, people have been able to figure out how to solve these tasks, which is sort of extraordinary.”

Treuille has high expectations for gaming’s potential to unlock good in humanity and impact the real world.

“People can solve much more complex problems online at the edge of human knowledge,” he said in a PopTech speech, “and I think we’ve just scratched the surface.”

Author Bio

Melanie Slaugh is enthusiastic about the growing prospects and opportunities of various industries and writing articles on various consumer goods and services as a freelance writer. She writes extensively for internet service providers and also topics related to internet service providers in my area for presenting the consumers, the information they need to choose the right Internet package for them.

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