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During a University of Washington study in 2010, players succeeded where scientists couldn’t. Foldit is an online puzzle game created in 2008 through a partnership between the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science and the UW Department of Biochemistry. The goal of the game is to fold selected proteins as efficiently as possible using the given tools.

In December 2010, players helped decipher the crystal structure of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV) retroviral protease. This virus has been known to cause AIDS in rhesus monkeys, and its understanding was considered of major importance to curing disease. With the given 3D models, players took less than ten days to decipher the protein – a feat scientists had been working on for over 15 years! Foldit players also contributed extensively through their feedback and gameplay, which generated the data for this paper.

The discoveries didn’t stop after a single revelation. In 2012, a UW team in David Baker’s laboratory used Foldit to achieve the first-ever crowd-sourced protein [design] – an enzyme used in synthetic chemistry. Self-described as a site that is solving puzzles for science, the puzzle-style environment gives gamers both a challenge, and a score rating to help reward success. Still ongoing today, the gamer and scientist collaboration continues to pave the way for real-world discoveries.

The actual protein solved by gamers is quite complex and looks best with hi-tech imaging software. To see images of the specific M-PMV protein (not just the RNA), check:

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