INTERVIEW by KEVIN EISENMANN | PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy of SETH COOPER
Foldit is a computer game like no other. Instead of blowing up the bad guys, players directly contribute to real scientific research. But don’t let that be a turn off; co-creator Seth Cooper at the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science assures us that the puzzle game is as addictive and fun as any Sudoku. But when you win at Foldit, you may actually be saving humanity. Sort of.
Before we get into Foldit, first tell us about the science. What are gamers actually playing with?
Foldit players are constructing and deconstructing proteins, which look like tangled up three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles. Proteins are the workhorses found in every cell in every living thing on Earth – from fighting disease to digestion to muscle movement – it all depends on how proteins interact with each other and the cells. And since the shape of the protein defines its function, like a key fitting into a lock, we need to understand why they are shaped the way they are.
What does it mean to better understand a protein? What are real-world applications?
The really cool thing is, once you’ve sort of mastered the shape of a protein, you can begin to actually change its shape or even develop other proteins that interact with it in a particular way. For example, if you know the shape of a flu virus protein, then you can try to come up with a drug or another protein that actually prevents the flu virus from working right. Or we could develop a protein that sticks to itself in just the right way and could be an environmentally friendlier alternative to the plastics that we have today. There are lots of implications.
When you call it “protein folding,” it sounds complex. Aren’t there computers that can do this job much faster than humans?
We tried that and, to put it simply, computers aren’t smart enough yet. They’re not as good at recognizing patterns and spatial reasoning as we are. It’s the same reason the internet uses CAPTCHA technology to identify real humans online. People also tend to be much more open-minded about solutions. Whereas a computer might work on tiny bits of proteins and make the calculations over and over again, participants will actually reconstruct entire sections of proteins on a hunch, sometimes with great success. The computers then help with the low-level details and refine the fit of the pieces that the players have done at the higher level.
To encourage this human-computer partnership, you created Foldit and made it available to the public. Anyone can download it. How is it that a non-scientist can possibly contribute to such complex research?
Originally, this crowd-sourcing concept came from the Rosetta@home screensaver, which used one’s home computing power for data crunching as it sat idle. Then my colleagues and I here at the University of Washington began wondering how we could harness the power of human intuition on these bigger problems that computers couldn’t solve.
How did you go about getting people to play with proteins, though? As one of those non-scientists, I have to admit it sounds a little intimidating.
Well, we know that by definition games are supposed to be fun. People are naturally competitive and like solving problems. So, there’s a leaderboard to encourage friendly competition. We also introduce a new protein puzzle every week to keep things fresh. And for new players, there are introductory puzzles that are designed to take people from not knowing anything about protein folding to the point where they can actually compete and contribute to the scientific puzzles. So there is this sense of learning and a sense of community, which are very important components of gaming.
Foldit was in the news recently for a pretty big discovery.
Yes, our players helped discover the structure of a protein belonging to the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus, a relative of HIV that causes AIDS in monkeys. In order to replicate, this virus needs to be able to cut itself apart using a scissor enzyme known as protease. Scientists could disable the virus by disabling the protease, but first we need to know how that protease is shaped. That’s where Foldit players came in. This problem, which had stumped scientists for years, was solved by Foldit players in a matter of weeks.
Who are your players? I’m imagining students or retired scientists.
We were actually surprised to learn from a survey of our top players that around three quarters have no biochemistry experience beyond a college course. People hear about Foldit, give it a try, and realize that it’s actually just a fun puzzle. At the same time, they’re seriously contributing to research. That’s the exciting thing about this – in the biochemistry lab, we can take these proteins out of the game and into the real world and maybe all of a sudden better fight the flu. Unsurprisingly, our players are most enthusiastic about puzzles that help us learn more about and potentially fight against diseases, such as the flu, cancer, and HIV.
I can already guess your answer, but I’ll ask anyway. How can readers of Daily BR!NK contribute?
Well, of course I encourage them to play the game. They can sign up at http://fold.it and start with the beginner levels. Not only is it a very entertaining way to spend your spare time, but you might end up contributing to the next scientific breakthrough.