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Video gamers solve molecular biology puzzle that stumped scientists for 10 years

Computer games aren’t just time-wasting geek pastimes, according to the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology. Online gamers have deciphered the structure of an enzyme of an AIDS-like virus that had had baffled researchers for a decade.

The accomplishment was published in the journal where both gamers and researchers were honored as co-authors. According to the published findings:

Their target was a monomeric protease enzyme, a cutting agent in the complex molecular tailoring of retroviruses, a family that includes HIV. Figuring out the structure of proteins is vital for understanding the causes of many diseases and developing drugs to block them.

But a microscope gives only a flat image of what to the outsider looks like a plate of one-dimensional scrunched-up spaghetti. Pharmacologists, though, need a 3-D picture that “unfolds” the molecule and rotates it in order to reveal potential targets for drugs.

Developed by the University of Washington, the fun-for-purpose video game engaged gamers, divided into competing groups, to compete to unfold chains of amino acids — the building blocks of proteins — using a set of online tools. The idea of using gamers to solve problems has been explored in the past. In the now-cancelled TV science-fiction series Stargate Universe, a main character, Eli Wallace, is drafted onto a team of star-traveling adventurers after solving a puzzle on such an on-line game.

The journal reports:

To the astonishment of the scientists, the gamers produced an accurate model of the enzyme in just three weeks.

Cracking the enzyme “provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs,” says the study, referring to the lifeline medication against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

It is believed to be the first time that gamers have resolved a long-standing scientific problem.

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