Gamers played a protein-folding game and solved an AIDS riddle that, well, stumped scientists for years. The gamers unlocked the key protein involved in the reproduction of HIV, scientists announced in September, a discovery that will help in understanding AIDS and HIV research and in the design of antiretroviral drugs. This time around, instead of focusing on what the gamers discovered, scientists examined the methods the gamers used in the Foldit community.
"With our previous papers, we proved that a scientific-discovery game can solve long-standing scientific problems, but this paper shows how gamers codified their strategies, shared them and improved them. This is just the beginning of what Foldit players are capable of solving,” said Seth Cooper, the primary architect and co-creator of Foldit, in a statement.
Foldit is a multiplayer online game that turns scientific problems into games. Gaming is collaborative in nature, so Foldit provides a perfect environment for gamers to out-do computers. And no, the gamers weren't really schooled in science. In fact, only a few of the gamers had degrees in biochemistry, which goes to show you that non-scientists can also develop 3D models of proteins - not just scientists.
In this study, the researchers wanted to find out if there's a way to uncover the strategies used by these gamers, so in the future, computers could do a better job at modeling proteins.
But what was unfolding in the Foldit community was even more significant: gamers were sharing the best methods with each other, adding to their over-all intelligence. These shared methods are known as recipes.
Cooper, a University of Washington computer scientist, said the results of this study show how powerful treating scientific research like a computer game can be.
Details about the recipes were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science this week. The scientists were "shocked" by some of the strategies used by the gamers, saying that they copied some of the algorithms used by trained scientists.
The scientists studied 721 gamers for three months. During that time, gamers shared their recipes with each other. The scientists found that one of the more popular strategies used was called Blue Fuse.
The players developed 5,400 different recipes, a mix of original recipes and a combination of other recipes developed by other players. Just like regular social media, the popular recipes spread more quickly. Two of the recipes were by far the most popular. What's more, when compared to an unpublished algorithm discovered by scientists, the recipes and the unpublished model showed striking similarities.
"I shared [Blue Fuse] fully because Foldit is so much more than a game – the competition is serious and fierce, but we are also trying to improve the understanding of huge biological proteins. We collaborate and compete at the same time," wrote one of the gamers who uses the name, Vertex.
Proteins keep our bodies functioning and keep us healthy. As scientists understand proteins better, treatment for AIDs, cancer, and Alzheimer's will improve. Scientists think introducing game play into scientific research could help solve hard scientific problems. And if scientists can teach computers to think more like humans, even better.
Is this the beginning of a more open culture in scientific research? I hope so.