Eight years ago, a team at the University of Washington developed Foldit, a protein folding game that pits gamers against scientists and computer algorithms. Proteins, which are made up of a string of building blocks, called amino acids, form much of the core machinery of cells. When immersed in water, protein chains adopt a variety of shapes that enable them to perform their cellular roles. Predicting how these chains will fold is a difficult undertaking, with wide ranging implications, from understanding the cause of Alzheimer’s Disease, to developing drugs that fit into crevices on proteins like a key in a lock.
Using their game, the team behind Foldit set out to understand who the best protein folders are: experts or gamers? They recruited scientists (2 experts, 61 undergraduates, and 2 computer algorithms), and over 450 gamers with no previous expertise. To the team’s surprise, the gamers bested the scientists! Moving forward, it’s important to realize that this does not mean that the experts are obsolete. Trained scientists are especially good at both understanding the context in which folding discoveries are made and figuring out how to leverage those discoveries to improve human health and our understanding of cellular machinery.
This result does, however, underscore that ‘crowd-sourcing’ science can allow previously untapped communities and creative thinkers to collaborate with research experts. Gamers’ insight can be used to achieve faster and sometimes unorthodox solutions, which scientists can use to improve computer algorithms. In addition, Foldit has exposed thousands to the field of protein folding – it’s a key tool in helping promote scientific literacy and fostering the next generation of algorithm bioengineers.
Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Dr. JC Gumbart for his insight and comments on the story. Dr. Gumbart is a biophysics professor at Georgia Tech with research interests ranging from protein folding to soft material simulations.
Managing Correspondent: Zane Wolf
Original Article: Determining crystal structures through crowdsourcing and coursework. -Nature Communications