Foldit, an online game put together by the University of Washington's computer science and biochemistry departments, was launched in 2008 as an attempt to leverage the ingenuity and spatial reasoning skills of gamers to help solve scientific problems. Recently, players of the game have helped discover the structure of an enzyme which could prove a significant step forward in the treatment and cure of retroviral diseases and even AIDS.
"We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed," said Firas Khatib of the University of Washington's biochemistry lab. "The ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems."
"People have spational reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at," added co-creator of Foldit Seth Cooper. "Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans. The results show that gaming, science and computation can be combined to make advances that were not possible before."
The structure of the enzyme in question had stumped scientists for over a decade, but Foldit players managed to model it together in just three weeks. The discovery will greatly assist in the research and development of drugs to treat retroviral conditions such as HIV, which leads to the onset of AIDS -- a condition for which there is still no cure.
"The critical role of Foldit players in the solution of [this problem] shows the power of online games to channel human intuition and three-dimensional pattern-matching skills to solve challenging scientific problems," wrote representatives of the University of Washington in a full report on the discovery. "Although much attention has recently been given to the potential of crowdsourcing and game playing, this is the first instance that we are aware of in which online gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem. These results indicate the potential for integrating video games into the real-world scientific process."
The Foldit team also says there are two other discoveries which players of the game have contributed to, and are preparing to release these in the near future. In the meantime, why not see if you can contribute too?
This article originally appeared on GamePro.com as Puzzle Gamers Solve Scientific Mystery that Could Help Cure AIDS