A while back, we blogged on NASA and FoldIt using crowd sourcing to enable citizens to solve scientific mysteries not even veteran scientists could figure out. That particular story has grown some new legs over the past couple of months, and its growth is evidence of what fantastic progress this exciting new field is making.
When we first brought you the story about the team of FoldIt players leveraging the online puzzle game to further the crowd sourced biotech phenomenon, they were using their gaming expertise to figure out the molecular structure of enzymes in M-PMV, a disease that develops into AIDS in monkeys. Their contributions were considered a big deal because, up until then, world renowned scientists had no luck in determining how this structure enabled the virus to spread.
This time, the FoldIt community is contributing its skills to help scientists create the ultimate protein.
By devoting hours upon hours at their computers, FoldIt players took an existing enzyme (an enzyme being a type of protein that accelerates the rate of chemical reactions) and modified it to the point where it was improved dramatically. According to reports, they were able to design the model enzyme to be 18 times more efficient and 100 times more active than before. Their results have experts in the biology field calling it another successful step in the right direction.
The game FoldIt itself is built around a process called protein folding. It’s a complex process, and also a critical one that has been presenting scientists with huge challenges for years. For the longest time, players were merely tasked with determining how proteins actually fold. Through the recent initiative, the team used the game’s Rubik’s Cube-style object structure to go beyond protein folding and actually improve the activity of the enzyme. What has traditionally been a headache that produced mixed results was done in a time efficient manner that once again left scientists baffled.
Software Design a Key Factor
Although the FoldIt community has rightfully been credited for its efforts and progress, the enzyme agenda was not without challenges. The group of gamers were actually producing lackluster results at one point, as some solutions turned out to be less active than the original protein, while others were completely inactive. On the bright side, these failures gave the team the starting point needed to create new variants and ultimately a finished product that was more all around effective than the enzyme they began working with.
FoldIt players did have expert knowledge guiding them along the way, but you could say that the game’s engine was the key piece of the puzzle. The developers who created the software recently made significant updates that allowed players to make important contributions to the project. Combined with an active community of gamers, an intuitive video game-like interface has been the catalyst of FoldIt’s success.
FoldIt is the brainchild of teams headed up by biochemist David Baker and Zoran Popovic of the Center of Game Science. The game has helped fuel the crowd sourced biotech movement by enabling players to hack away at the protein folding process from the comfort of their own computers. Thanks to the technology behind the platform, players are able to make more dramatic modifications to proteins than what is possible when using standard scientific methods.
So what’s next for the FoldIt community? According to Baker, it’s focusing on more useful targets and enhancing the potency of enzyme inhibitors. He says the next developments could lead to the creation of drugs that may be useful in the medical field.