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article imageGamers take on scientists in protein challenge

By Tim Sandle     Sep 19, 2016 in Science
Detroit - As part of a crowdsourcing challenge gamers, playing a bespoke game called Foldit, have folded a protein into a new shape ahead of professional scientists.
The puzzle was set by University of Michigan scientists to assist with a review of the complexities of protein folding, according to Engadget. The way proteins fold can turn benign proteins into types that can cause disease. This is most notable with amyloid beta, which are the peptides of certain amino acids that are widely thought to be involved in Alzheimer's disease. The misfolded proteins are the main components of the amyloid plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer patients.
Entire science teams regularly focus on trying to work out how proteins fold in different ways. The number of combinations are very complex and more manual methods, involving the interpretation of an electron-density map, can be a labor-intensive, and highly error-prone. In order to see if the citizen scientists could help, the University of Michigan turned a portion of the software used to analyze protein folding into a computer game (appropriately called Foldit). The aim was to see if gamers could come up with something that the scientists could not. Showing how different minds think, 459 gamers, each working on the overall puzzle, did just that. Under normal circumstances, this kind of large-scale collaboration that would be impractical for academics. However, if similar games are devised, which appeal to the general public, then speed of problem solving will pick up considerably.
The exercise has implications for video game enthusiasts as well as how classroom instruction is taught; the exercise also showcases the positive impact citizen science can have on research. Lead reseacher, Dr. James Bardwell, said in a research note: "It shows that anybody with a 3-D mentality, including gamers, can do something that previously only scientists did, and in doing so they can help scientific progress."
The outcome of the research and the game have been published in the journal Nature Communications, in a research paper titled "Determining crystal structures through crowdsourcing and coursework."
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