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09.16.2016

Foldit video gamers beat pros in protein-folding contest

Outcome shows value of crowd-sourced research and of UW-developed game software to advance the understanding of protein molecules

By Brian Donohue  |  HSNewsBeat  |  Updated 2:00 AM, 09.16.2016

Posted in: Research

  • Foldit's user interface displays the protein puzzle created for the contest, as well as tool menus and player/game status. Courtesy of Brian Koepnick

Gamers playing the popular online puzzle game Foldit triumphed over scientists, college students and computer algorithms in a contest to identify a particular protein molecule’s shape. 

The study findings, to be published Sept. 16 in Nature Communications, demonstrate how nonscientists can help advance science and highlight the value of computer games in learning. 

“The puzzle involved a task that can be labor-intensive and error-prone. We think it’s significant that crowd-sourced Foldit players can do [the task] as well as, or better than, professional crystallographers,” said Brian Koepnick, one of the study’s lead investigators.

He is a University of Washington graduate student in biochemistry conducting research at the Institute for Protein Design.  UW Medicine and other UW researchers jointly led the study with colleagues at the University of Michigan, the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and Northeastern University. 

Koepnick-Foldit
University of Washington Institute for Protein Design
UW biochemistry graduate student and puzzle designer Brian Koepnick works in Foldit.
Graduate student and puzzle designer Brian Koepnick works in Foldit.

Every bodily function involves proteins, so understanding how proteins work is important to biology and to medicine. Protein molecules start out as a chain of chemicals that fold into shapes that determine their roles. The contest puzzle challenged participants to interpret biochemical data to discover a protein's structure. 

The groups competing to decipher the puzzle included 469 players using Foldit, a protein-folding video game developed at the UW Center for Game Science; two crystallographers, trained to examine protein structures at the atomic level; and 61 University of Michigan biochemistry undergrads. The latter two groups used the computer-modeling software called Coot

The students and professionals worked independently, as is the norm for scientists engaged in model-building. The winning video game players, however, worked more collaboratively. 

“Many of our Foldit players have no scientific training. They are puzzle-solvers; they like to tinker and work a problem,” Koepnick said. “Some are in it for the game and for high scores. Others are motivated to contribute to science.

“Foldit is a very direct way of contributing to science without reaching for the checkbook and without the commitment of graduate school.”

Foldit-wiggle
Courtesy of Brian Koepnick
(Click to enlarge.) "Wiggle" is one tool available to Foldit players.
picture of Foldit video game interface

The gamers' victory suggests that Foldit’s game interface, which is more engaging than Coot’s technical presentation, makes a difference, too.

Co-author Scott Horowitz, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan, said he plans to integrate Foldit into his class. He believes it will motivate students to learn about a very complicated subject.

"I've seen how much players learn about proteins from playing this game," Horowitz said. "We spend weeks and weeks trying to jam this into students' brains.  Foldit players learn it naturally because it's fun."  

The study's authors say their next step is to incorporate the gamers' tips and tricks into the software that scientists use when building these structures. Human-designed protein molecules may someday solve a number of health, environmental and energy problems. 

The researchers also said that analysis of the protein targeted in the competition also uncovered a new family of proteins. These may have a role in preventing plaque formation, which is implicated in diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Media contact: Brian Donohue, bdonohue@uw.edu; 206.543.7856

Tagged with: Foldit, proteins, Institute for Protein Design, computer science, game
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