The next time you're tutting at youngsters 'wasting time' on computer games, consider the work of Dr Firas Khatib who enlisted online gamers and solved in just three weeks a biological problem that has baffled scientists for more than 10 years.
The results could prove a vital tool in developing new AIDS drugs as the players used a specially designed game called Foldit to come up with an accurate model of an enzyme from a virus similar to the deadly immune system condition.
In order to tackle AIDS, scientists need to find out how these enzymes - which cut proteins and are called retroviral proteases - work, but have struggled to work out just what they look like.
"We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed," said Dr. Khatib of the University of Washington Department of Biochemistry.Professor of biochemistry Dr. David Baker and his team worked with the University of Washington Centre for Game Science to come up with Foldit, a game which engaged thousands of players in the seemingly obscure task of modelling molecules using the latest gaming technology.
Game centre director Dr. Zoran Popovic said: "The focus of the UW Centre for Game Sciences is to solve hard problems in science and education that currently cannot be solved by either people or computers alone."
While computers are brilliant tools for scientists, they don't excel at everything (yet), and can't match the human ability to calculate three dimensional spatial relationships. With its increasingly difficult three level structure, Foldit offered players challenges they were familiar with from mainstream, commercial products.
The scientists, who list the game players as co-authors of their report in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, refined the gamers' designs and found possible routes for developing anti-AIDS drugs. They believe that the techniques pioneered here can help find drugs to treat cancer, Alzheimer's disease, deficiencies of the immune system as well as such differing fields as developing biofuels and changing the way physics and maths are taught.
Dr. Seth Cooper, co-creator of Foldit, said: "Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans. The results in this week's paper show that gaming, science and computation can be combined to make advances that were not possible before."
"The ingenuity of game players," Khatib said, "is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.
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