Video gamers crack code on AIDS-causing monkey virus

A protein causing AIDS in rhesus monkeys that hadn't been solved for 15 years was resolved by players of an online science puzzle video game called Foldit, which challenges groups of players to "unfold" chains of amino acids.

It took competing teams of gamers just three weeks to generate three-dimensional models of the enzyme, which is called M-PMV (Mason-Pfizer Monkey virus) retroviral protease.

Foldit was designed to tackle the problem of protein structure prediction. Since proteins are made up of hundreds or thousands of amino acids, they can "fold" (or assume a stable state) in millions of different ways, and the way they fold determines what they'll do and how they'll respond to drugs.

For more than a decade, researchers were unable to figure out the structure of M-PMV even though they were using automated techniques that were found to be quite effective in structurally similar cases.

Foldit, however, relies on human three-dimensional pattern-recognition and puzzle-solving abilities that are still more sophisticated than Artificial Intelligence is capable of.

"Remarkably, despite the complete failure of all previous approaches, several solutions by the Foldit Contenders Group produced phase estimates that were good enough to allow a rapid solution of the crystal structure," the published results said.

Knowing the design of M-PMV now opens the door for the design of effective antiretroviral drugs.

Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, the journal which published the findings, said this is the first instance where online gamers solved a long-standing scientific problem.

"These results indicate the potential for integrating video games into the real-world scientific process: the ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems," the journal said.

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