May 12 2012
Try as you might to put a positive spin on video gaming, it remains, by and large, a frivolous form of entertainment. Of course, there are educational applications for games, and they are sometimes used to bring attention to real-world issues, but it's not often that a game actually contributes directly to scientific research. Foldit essentially crowd sources the problem solving abilities of thousands of users to fold proteins. The result is an extremely intricate puzzle game where success has implications that go far beyond a token high score.
Proteins are involved in a wide variety of biological processes such as coverting sugar to energy and carrying vital signals to the brain. They also play a role in many diseases and allergies, so a better understanding of them can lead to improvements in prevention and treatment of these conditions.
What is Protein Folding?
Folding is the process by which a protein goes from being a random coil or polypeptide to its functional three-dimensional structure. This shape determines how the protein interacts with its environment, so being able to predict this shape from a primary sequence is very useful. The problem is that there are an astronomical number of ways to fold even small proteins, so finding the best one is a daunting task.
One way to approach it is distributed computing. People can contribute their computer's otherwise idle time to folding proteins by using the Rosetta@Home Screensaver. However, it turns out that we may be better equipped for this task than even the fastest computers, which struggle to compete with our intuition when it comes to solving spatial problems.
Enter Foldit the game, which allows people from all over the world with little or no understanding of microbiology to try their hand at folding proteins. The results so far have been remarkably good. Most famously, in just 3 weeks gamers helped to determine the structure of the AIDS-causing virus M-PMV that had eluded researchers for almost 15 years.
Does It Make a Good Game?
In terms of gameplay, Foldit is much more complex than most puzzles intended only for entertainment. Manipulating the structure of a protein within the rules established by biologists is such a peculiar, organic, and highly-detailed process that, as they say, you just can't make this stuff up. There's a pretty serious learning curve here, with 32 tutorial puzzles that show you how to use the tools at your disposal, which also serves as a sort of crash course of protein structures. The toolset is sophisticated enough that you won't get far without these tutorials, and will probably be wishing for more instruction in places.
The task involves using a variety of tools to pull, align, shake, and wiggle the protein into an optimal 3D shape. It's vaguely reminiscient of 3D modelling, but with a very restrictive set of tools that adhere to established tenents of protein behavior. You are awarded points based on the likelihood of the shape you've arrived at being the actual shape of the folded protein. There are social functions available if you need help from friends or the community at large. Solutions can be saved and shared, and you can even exchange screenshots.
Foldit leads me to believe that the greatest puzzles are not the ones we've invented, but the ones nature has presented us with. If you have the fortitude to figure out how it all works, you'll find a puzzle game with depth that other puzzle games can only dream of. Not only is Foldit likely to teach you a few things you didn't know about proteins, it's also a chance to be part of a game that could ultimately help prevent or treat important diseases, and that takes solving puzzles to an entirely new level.