by Heidi Ledford
The game is called Foldit, and it lets users manipulate different parts of a protein (amino acid sidechains, beta sheets, and helices) to optimize its 3-D structure. A tutorial guided by a cartoon image of protein structure guru David Baker (University of Washington), complete with his trademark unruly ‘Einstein-the-early-years’ hair, teaches you a few basics: bring your sheets together to allow hydrogen bonding between them, and don’t let your amino acid sidechains bump into each other.
Wannabe structural biologists can download it here. Baker and his colleagues previously designed a program called Rosetta@home that harnesses idle computers to solve protein structures. But users who downloaded the program watched as their computers cranked away evaluating different structural possibilities and began to wonder: might a human do better? The Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s press release quotes Baker: “People were writing in, saying, `Hey! The computer is doing silly things! It would be great if we could help guide it.”
So now the skeptics get to try their hand. I gave the game a quick try, just enough to make it through the tutorial and take a stab at the first challenge puzzle: a beginner’s task based on a protein from a bacteria that can cause strep throat. (Somewhere around the sixth or seventh puzzle in the tutorial my mind started to wander and I turned on the webcast of the mock news program Colbert Report from the previous night. I finished the puzzle somewhere between when Stephen Colbert declared: “Scientists are so snooty” and when he shocked himself on a homemade electromagnet.)
Overall, I’m hooked. Not cancel-my-weekend-plans hooked, but I’ve definitely found a new way to procrastinate. I’d say you don’t necessarily learn a whole lot about protein structure, but really, did you want to? And if you did, they provide a separate tutorial that covers the details. Meanwhile, the game does give you that conceptual sense of how elegant (and frustratingly delicate) protein structure can be.
According to one press release, the high score could earn the winner a Nobel Prize for medicine. But I won’t hold my breath.