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"Game Changer" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
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Gamers have solved the structure of a retrovirus enzyme whose configuration had stumped scientists for more than a decade. The gamers achieved their discovery by playing Foldit, an online game that allows players to collaborate and compete in predicting the structure of protein molecules.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

(Sound effect: online gaming sounds) High-stakes Gamers.

(Sound effect: theme music) I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

Here's a first--online gamers have solved a molecular biology problem in just 3 weeks, one that scientists couldn't unravel in 10 years. The project is the brainchild of scientists at the University of Washington Department of Biochemistry and the UW Center for Game Science.

The mission was to model the structure of a retrovirus enzyme from an aids-like virus. If scientists can determine its structure, they'll be better able to create anti-aids drugs to deactivate it. For over a decade, the usual methods of solving the puzzle were tried but science couldn't get a handle on what the enzyme's structure looked like.

The team turned to an unlikely group--online gamers. Reasoning that human intuition is something computers don't have, they used an online game created at UW called "fold it," and enlisted thousands of players worldwide to take a crack at cracking it.

Groups of players were soon rotating 3-d chains of amino acids in cyberspace and were able to generate models good enough for the researchers to refine and within a few days determine the enzyme's structure.

The game of science meets the science of gaming. Look for other 'gamely' collaborations that may change the way we teach math and science. In the article that published the findings in a scientific journal, the gamers were listed as co-authors.

"It's not a game--it's molecular biology, mom."

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's national science foundation. Federally sponsored research--brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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