Online games are hugely popular. Every day millions of players across the world are glued to their computer screens for hours, immersing themselves in a virtual world.
The players boost their egos as they assume commanding roles in directing the course of the game against numerous odds, which are made fascinating by advances in computer graphics. The games engage the users so much that the time spent on email and TV is reported to have come down in many countries, including the U.S. and Japan.
Even as the games offer superb entertainment, some imaginative scientists have thought of using them for a different purpose.
Why not, they asked, involve players in solving biological puzzles that even computers cannot tackle successfully. Initially, it was unthinkable that laypersons could suggest something that had eluded top biologists and computers. But the incredible happened, online.
Researchers in Washington University, Seattle (U.S.), released a protein-folding video game called Foldit (2008). The idea was to involve thousands of online gamers, who have not studied biology or biochemistry, in understanding how some human proteins fold, as each type of protein folds up in a specific shape, which determines its function.
HIV is made up largely of proteins, which create other proteins to sustain and multiply the infection. This is an example of a disease-producing protein that does not occur naturally in the human body. It is known that the structure of a protein called retroviral protease, an enzyme, is the key to understand how HIV matures and multiplies.
Computers can, no doubt, recognise a well-folded protein, but it is difficult for a computer to create the correct shape, where human skill can excel. Efforts to block the enzymes with anti-AIDS drugs have been hampered, as scientists did not know exactly what the retroviral protease looks like.
The video game for decoding the structure of the protein involved in multiplying HIV was developed by a team led by Zoran Papovic, director of the Center for Game Science, and biochemist David Baker.
They were surprised to find that 60,000 players in different age groups participated in the game.
Three players gave a design that matched the embedded ideal results suggested by the Foldit software, while two gave better solutions.
The scientists never expected to find that gamers would produce an accurate model of the enzyme within three weeks. The models generated by the gamers were good enough for them to decipher the structure of the protein involved in the virus and was found useful to carry the drugs needed.
Foldit has since caught the imagination of millions. Today, the number of gamers registered for the video game worldwide has crossed 2,40,000. The gamers are currently involved in designing a small protein that inhibits the 1918 pandemic influenza virus. Another challenge today is to decipher the structure of a protein crucial to embryonic development of all animals, which is expected to throw light on cancer growth, stem biology and tissue regeneration.
The scientists have arranged an online chat with interested gamers this month.
‘Design new proteins’
Encouraged by the positive response, scientists are now challenging online gamers to go one step further and design new proteins that do not exist in nature.
The not-for-profit computer program Rosetta@home invites interested persons to help design new proteins to fight HIV, malaria, cancer, Alzheimer’s and other diseases.
The unexpected results from crowdsourcing are encouraging. When online games were introduced, no one imagined that they could become game changers in areas totally unrelated to entertainment.
(The author is a national award-winning science writer and author of the forthcoming book, The Internet: A Revolution in Progress. He has taught Technology Communication at the International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore. He can be contacted at email@example.com).