And here your parents thought all those Mortal Kombat skills would never amount to anything useful: A research team at the University of Washington has created a video game called Foldit, which challenges dexterous gamers to fold protein strands according to the actual laws of physics—thereby helping to determine the 3-dimensional shapes of proteins that could mean cures for diseases from Alzheimer's to HIV.
The game, developed by a group of biochemists, computer scientists, and engineers, resembles an elaborate form of Tetris. It uses the same protein-folding software as the Rosetta@home project, which was created in 2005—also by U. of Washington researchers—as an effort to use volunteers to calculate every possible protein shape in the human body—a task so enormous that if every computer in the world was working on it simultaneously, it would still take centuries to complete. But while the Rosetta project asks participants to donate only their unused computer power, Foldit takes advantage of the "natural 3-D problem-solving skills" of all those masterful X Box players out there.
So far, around 1,000 players have tested the system, though it formally opened to the public last week. Interested in having a go? Just click here. Though novices beware—you're liable to get a thumping by haptagud, daemonk, mincus, thuza, and Spontan, all of whom are probably 13-year-old boys.