A unique partnership between academic laboratories, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO), and Mars, Incorporated hopes to leverage the power of crowdsourced science to develop new protein structures that can degrade the aflatoxin poison. Aflatoxin, produced by certain fungi, is a potent cancer-causing poison estimated to contribute to up to 28% of liver cancer cases globally. This toxin can contaminate crops in the field and in storage. In developed economies, advanced food safety technologies serve to keep aflatoxin levels to a minimum. However, in developing nations, aflatoxin limits often go unenforced, leading the burden of this cancerous agent to fall disproportionately on poorer countries. In 2017, the United Nations’ launched the Foldit Aflatoxin Challenge, in the hopes that gamers across the globe could apply their skills to tackle aflatoxin, one of the world’s most pressing health and food security menaces. Gamers may not be the typical group of people racing to discover a scientific breakthrough, but they have certainly risen to the challenge.

A decade ago, a team at the University of Washington developed Foldit, a protein-folding game that allows players to digitally experiment with new molecular structures that could hold the key to solving many human health problems. Proteins are made up of strings of amino acids that determine their three-dimensional (3D) structure. This unique 3D structure, in turn, determines the protein’s function. If key amino acids are modified, the protein can change shape, and develop enhanced functions – such as the ability to efficiently degrade aflatoxin. Over the past year, gamers have helped create 1.6 million protein structures over 12 rounds of the aflatoxin puzzle on Foldit. After each round, scientists at the Siegel lab at the University of California Davis analyzed the best-scoring protein structures. They sent their data to Thermo Fisher Scientific who made the DNA instructions to synthesize these protein structures. These DNA instructions were sent back to the Siegel lab, where theproteins were evaluated on their ability to degrade aflatoxin – and many could!

The incredible intuition and spatial reasoning abilities of the gamers has led to the rapid creation of promising protein structures that may have taken decades if only computer algorithms, that rely on random sampling, were used. While there is much work to be done, if a solution to the aflatoxin menace is produced through this work, all player designs will be made available without a patent, and the solution will be made freely available to anyone in the world.

Managing correspondent: Radhika Agarwal

Original science article: Nature Communications

Popular news article: Nature

Related SITN article: Foldit players beat scientists in determining protein’s shape

Image credit: CC BY 3.0

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