Gamers solve molecular biology problem

David Baker and coworkers at the University of Washington's Center for Game Science reported the structure of a molecule related to AIDS. in the latest Nature:Structural & Molecular Biology. This wasn't terribly exciting news. Yes, researchers have been actively trying to figure out this puzzle for over 10 years, but no one except a handful of professionals would have noticed if the Baker group had solved the elusive structure themselves. Instead, they used their online video game FoldIt to let people with no expertise tackle the problem.

FoldIt awards players points for getting parts of a protein in energetically favorable configurations (for example, hydrogen bonds are worth big points, while two atoms clashing together costs a penalty). Using tools provided in the game, "The Contenders" team shared ideas and structures and managed to come up with a good solution in only 10 days. This is the first published case where "the power of online games to channel human intuition" has solved a puzzle that baffled traditional scientists. But I'd be willing to bet that it's not the last.


Ayusman Sen and coworkers at Penn State have made the first synthetic nanoscale motor that is powered by a polymerization. First, they made "two-faced" nanoparticles that are silica on one side and gold on the other. Then they attached a Grubbs catalyst to the silica. These Ru catalysts love to grab on to double bonds and string them together. So when there is any double-bonded fuel (norbornene) around, the researchers could watch the particles being propelled towards it, and spinning out polymer chains as they go. The Royal Society of Chemistry has dubbed these nanomotors "spiders" because they spin out strands of product, and they move towards their "food".

Really inking skin

Skin grafts are a tedious, painful process for burn victims. Bioprinting is an exciting new field of research that is improving this procedure. Using a small sample of healthy skin, bioengineers can produce "inks" containing the patient's own stem cells. These inks are applied to the burned area to generate new, healthy tissue. Researchers at Wake Forest are beginning clinical trials using modified ink jet printers. A group at the University of Pittsburg has some impressive results using airbrush guns: