Online Gamers Crack AIDS Enzyme Puzzle


In just 3 weeks, online gamers were able to produce an accurate model of a protein-cutting enzyme from an AIDS-like virus whose configuration had confused scientists for more than a decade.

The University of Washington researchers have teamed up with gamers to make a breakthrough in AIDS research that could unlock new drug treatments.

Gamers achieved their discovery by playing Fold-it, an online game that allows players to participate and compete in predicting the structure of protein molecules.

Fold-it was created by computer scientists at the University of Washington Center for Game Science in collaboration with the Baker lab.

Players come from all walks of life. The game taps into their 3-D spatial abilities to rotate chains of amino acids in cyberspace.  Direct manipulation tools, as well as assistance from a computer program called Rosetta, encourage participants to configure graphics into a workable protein model. Teams send in their answers, and UW researchers constantly improve the design of the game and its puzzles by analyzing the players’ problem-solving strategies.

“The focus of the UW Center for Game Sciences,” said director Dr. Zoran Popovic, associate professor of Computer Science and Engineering, “is to solve hard problems in science and education that currently cannot be solved by either people or computers alone.”

Solving the structure of the retrovirus enzyme is a big accomplishment because the enzyme is in a class called retroviral proteases that plays a critical role in how the AIDS vires matures and multiplies.  Now that researchers know what the enzyme looks like, there is hope that it will speed up the development of anti-AIDS drugs that block the enzymes.


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