How To Save The World By Solving Puzzles For Science

How To Save The World By Solving Puzzles For Science

Laura E. Hall
Feb 9, 2011

You may be familiar with the Folding@Home initiative for Playstation 3, a distributed computing program that harnesses some of your console's spare processing to simulate protein folding. But now scientists are counting on the collective power of gamers to create proteins without known structures, develop new folding strategies and design rather than predict proteins - all through a free downloadable game called Foldit.

Defined by Stanford, proteins are "biology's workhorses", the polypeptide nanomachines that begin as a random coil and end in "characteristic and functional three-dimensional structures" (via) which become the driving forces of all of our biomechanical reactions.

Misfolding, on the other hand, is linked to many types of neurodegenerative disease, like Alzheimer's, ALS, Huntington's and Parkinson's, as well as cancer and Mad Cow (BSE).

Currently, researchers have computers running every possible combination of folding, a process known by gamers as "brute forcing". But because that process takes many years, sometimes the equivalent of a lifetime, the researchers behind Foldit are positing that the pattern-recognition and puzzle-solving abilities of human beings may be more efficient than computer programs. If successful, they will teach computers the human-created solving methods.

Hundreds of thousands of users have downloaded the Foldit software so far, and the site includes traditional online game elements like leaderboards, teams, wikis and in-game chat. The project also proposes challenges and contests for the participants to create puzzles and new protein designs.

Try your hand at protein folding by downloading Foldit for Mac, Windows or Linux here.

You can also contribute by getting Rosetta@home, a screensaver for your personal computer that utilizes distributed computing, or Folding@home for Playstation 3.

(Photo by Aendgraend.)

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