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.