You’ve heard of educational software that teaches you something but this is educational software that teaches scientists something. Foldit is a Tetris-like game that is easy to understand but a challenge to master. That’s what makes it fun. What makes it important is that it was designed by a very serious team of scientists based on models of proteins as a way of furthering their research. As people all over play the game, they are sending back to the scientists important data that will help them learn more about the way proteins work.
The number of different ways even a small protein can fold is astronomical because there are so many degrees of freedom. Figuring out which of the many, many possible structures is the best one is regarded as one of the hardest problems in biology today and current methods take a lot of money and time, even for computers. Foldit attempts to predict the structure of a protein by taking advantage of humans’ puzzle-solving intuitions and having people play competitively to fold the best proteins.
Calculations involving spatial understanding are among the few that are still done most effectively by humans instead of computers. As people work through the levels of the game, they are performing thousands of calculations and experiments. Some of them have even become so interested they have done a little research of their own. Others are just having fun working through the game and competing with each other online. PRI’s Studio 360 has a terrific segment on Foldit and a video clip to show how the game works.