Thursday, August 19, 2010

Seattle video game teaches complexity of protein structures

Millions of people participate in online science projects. Foldit takes things to a new level, using an online game to leverage the forces of human creativity, intuition and spatial reasoning against a scientific task that flummoxes silicon brains.

By Sandi Doughton, Seattle Times science reporter

Susanne Halicki's last science class was in high school — and that was a long time ago.

She's got grown children now and works as an office administrator.

But every evening, Halicki slips on a cyber lab coat and immerses herself in molecular biology via a video game developed in Seattle.

The British woman is among 150,000 people worldwide who have tried their hand at the game called Foldit. She's also part of an elite subset of players who have become so skillful at sussing out the structures of biologically important proteins that they frequently outperform supercomputers.

"I like solving puzzles," Halicki said. "It was hard at first, but I persevered."

Insights from the citizen scientists are already helping in the quest for new drugs and green-energy technologies, and could become an even more powerful tool in the future, said University of Washington biochemist David Baker.

"This shows that people who don't have a scientific background can solve very challenging scientific problems," said Baker, co-creator of Foldit. He's now enlisting the players to design potential drugs from scratch.

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