Science is full of hard problems. One hard problem is protein folding. Indeed vast amounts of computer power have been thrown at this problem. So one wouldn’t think that the computer we’ve got sitting on top of our body would be much use for this problem. But is this true? Can humans fold proteins better than computers? Enter onto the scene foldit developed by a group of researchers here at the University of Washington.
An Economist article explains:
The existing program uses trial and error, and pre-programmed mathematical rules that govern folding as understood today. But users of the screensaver told David Baker, a biochemist at the University of Washington and lead scientist on Rosetta@home, they could do better. So Dr Baker, Zoran Popovic, a computer scientist at the University of Washington, and graduate students Seth Cooper and Adrien Treuille set about creating a compelling computer game.
Players use their computers to fold proteins. The more chemically stable the folded protein becomes, the more points the players are awarded. In trials of the game hundreds of players were given 40 protein puzzles to solve (for the trials, the folding solutions were already known). Many of the best players were not scientists but were able to find the correct structure faster than computers.
The next big step will be to give players proteins for which the optimal folding is not known. They will then be doing cutting-edge research in protein-structure prediction. If all goes well, the game will move on to protein design this summer, by including options that allow players to modify sections of the protein. This will allow them to design a protein that blocks the action of a virus.
Dude, I totally want a game to beat D-waves future Kwantum Komputer!