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Planet Earth

#67: Gamers Solve HIV Riddle

Computer geeks figure out the shape of AIDS-related virus in 10 days.


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For the first time, a major scientific problem has been solved by people playing a computer game. The players deciphered the three-dimensional structure of a protein that allows M-PMV, a close relative of the AIDS virus, to infect cells.

Proteins are long molecules that fold into complex shapes; the shapes, in turn, determine how they function. Researchers usually figure out those structures laboriously by bouncing X-rays off crystals of the molecules or by using predictive software. Instead bioinformatician Firas Khatib of the University of Washington used the collective skills of thousands of people playing an online game called Foldit, created by computer scientists Seth Cooper and Zoran Popovic. In the game, players worked together to rearrange proteins into different shapes. Other software then evaluated which of the proposed solutions was most likely to be correct. Many Foldit players have no background in chemistry. Successful game play requires only that they be able to make simple adjustments like “freezing” or “wiggling” shapes on their screens.

AIDS researchers had struggled for more than a decade to work out M-PMV’s structure. The gamers cracked it in less than 10 days. “That structure can now be a target for a new generation of anti-HIV drugs,” Khatib says.

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