Video gamers help to design new proteins

Posted Jun 11, 2019 by Tim Sandle
Video gamers have helped to design brand new proteins by playing an interactive on-line application called Foldit. Through this, citizen scientists are aiding protein researchers create novel vaccines and cancer therapies.
File photo: Part of the polarity exhibit  images of PAR proteins. Some of the PAR proteins are local...
File photo: Part of the polarity exhibit, images of PAR proteins. Some of the PAR proteins are localized asymmetrically and form physical complexes with one another.
The basis of the project involved researchers, from the University of Washington Health Sciences, encoding their specialized knowledge of protein chemistry into a computer game. By letting citizen scientists play various modelling scenarios, this has led to the successful design of synthetic proteins through such a medium for the first time.
Synthetic proteins have genetic sequences that are not seen in natural proteins. Interest in synthetic proteins has been sparked by cancer research. For this reason protein design is fast becoming a key scientific discipline. Synthetic proteins are as stable as natural ones, and have the additional advantage that they are not degraded by enzymes or targeted by the immune system the same as natural ones are.
According to lead researcher Dr. David Baker: "There are more possible proteins than there are atoms in the universe. It's exciting to think that now anyone can help explore this vast space of possibilities."
The trick is with finding the different formations that pave the way for developing synthetic proteins. One way is with having scientists spending thousands of hours running computer simulations. Another way is through gamification, and this is where the video game comes in.
The video below shows Foldit in action:
The aim of Foldit was c to 'gamify' protein research. Through programming, the candidate designer molecules which scored well in Foldit are also those most likely to fold up as intended in the real world. As an example, researchers assessed 146 proteins designed by Foldit players in the laboratory. 56 were found to be stable
The research project has been published in the journal Nature. The research paper is titled "De novo protein design by citizen scientists."