Online gamers solve 10-year-old science problem in 10 days

The Takeaway

Story from The Takeaway. 

For almost a decade, scientists have been trying to determine the structure of an AIDS-like virus found in rhesus monkeys. If they could determine the structure of the virus, they speculated they could design a drug to stop it. But the problem proved very difficult, even for the most advanced supercomputers. Then came, an online game that harnesses the power of crowd sourcing and human putzing to solve the mysteries of protein structure. Researchers turned the problem over to the gamers — and they solved it in just ten days.

According to Firas Khatib, a researcher at the University of Washington's biochemistry lab, the gamers used their "human intuition, pattern recognition and puzzle-solving skills" to narrow down all the possible folds that proteins can have — something that a computer can't do on its own.

Seth Cooper is the University of Washington computer scientist who designed and developed He says the game allowed groups of players to work together, which proved to be a key factor.

"The primary goal of the player in is to get a high score by folding up the protein that they're presented with as well as possible," Cooper explained. "But the players are also able to form groups where they can actually work together and share their progress that they've made so far back and forth with each other, and then the other players in their group can actually pick up where they leave off."

One of these groups, the Contenders, was able to come up with the solution.

The findings were published this past Sunday, and in an unprecedented move, both gamers and researchers are honored as co-authors.

"Our colleagues who have been working on this for literally over ten years, trying to solve this problem, they were so happy when we told them about this, they insisted on opening bottles of champaigne over Skype," Khatib said.

Download a brief of the study from the University of Washington or access the full article on the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology website.


"The Takeaway" is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what's ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.

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