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In world of proteincraft, humans win: people solve molecular puzzles in online computer game.

Compared with slaying dragons or building civilizations, figuring out the shape of a protein doesn't sound particularly thrilling. But turn the task into an online game, replete with the competition and camaraderie of World of Warcraft, and the masses will come.

More than 57,000 people, many nonscientists, got involved in Foldit, a game geared to solving the puzzle of protein structure, scientists report in the Aug. 5 Nature. And several top-ranked players outdid state-of-the-art computer algorithms that tackle the same tasks. The project suggests that online games tapping into the wisdom of crowds maybe a fruitful approach to scientific challenges.

"Humans have all sorts of creativity, problem-solving skills and insights," says study coauthor Seth Cooper of the University of Washington in Seattle. "Hopefully other problems can be cast in this way so people without formal training can still get involved and help out."

Making games of mundane tasks, such as cleaning, is a trick familiar to babysitters. "Dress a tedious task in the guise of a game, and there are players who will spend hours and hours on end doing a task they wouldn't otherwise do," says Stanford University's Nick Yee, who studies the sociology of online games.

Foldit tackles the protein-folding problem. In cells, each protein starts as a string of amino acids and must fold into a particular 3-D structure before it can do its job. A protein's final shape is determined by the sequence of its amino acids, but predicting that final structure from amino acid sequence alone is extremely difficult.


In Foldit, players tweak, tug and twist partially folded proteins, with the aim of reaching 3-D structures that are energetically stable. Top players outperformed Rosetta, a computer algorithm designed to figure out protein structure.

Foldit was such a success that the University of Washington is starting a new center for game science, Cooper says.

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Title Annotation:Molecules; Foldit
Author:Ehrenberg, Rachel
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 28, 2010
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