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Addictive protein folding game

by Heidi Ledford

So what does a swinging Nature reporter do on a Thursday night? Given yesterday’s news that there was an online protein folding game (Economist;MIT Technology Review), isn’t the answer obvious?

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.


  1. Report this comment

    London Sightseeing Tour said:

    What a great fun game… thanks for this.

  2. Report this comment

    Renton Innes said:

    It’s now scientifically prooven that folding protein, Humans trained/playing using the interface is as effective as what automated computer servers can do in predicting the structures of proteins, Thus no longer speculation to how well or if’s, ands or buts about it’s usefulness in the scientific world.

    You yourself after a short time can offer something proactive to solving some of the worlds/societies most complicated puzzles, rather than waste time playing a “game” that does not provide the same “rewards” as folding protein does this way.

    I have been playing for over 8 months, almost every day, competing against people from all around the world, trying to find a solution that may just one day, save a life, perhaps two or maybe millions, that thought alone can drive someone like me to being something/someone they cannot normally be because of the perceptions of people in our society.

    This is the Greatest Game in the world, without a doubt.

    If you haven’t tried it yet and are sick of your normal solveable puzzles/riddles in your newspapers and magazines, Sign Up, log on and try and compete against me or those of us who have dedicated ourselves to making the world a better place… playing games.

    Renton Innes aka player "Aotearoa "

    Auckland, New Zealand.

    Kia Kaha

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