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Video Gamers Crack Enzyme Riddle That Could Help Find an AIDS Cure

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"citizen scientists"

The problem-solving skills of a gamer is a beautiful and unique thing. What stumped scientists for decades only took gamers 10 days of concentration to crack.

The task? Figure out an enzyme riddle that scientists are now saying could unlock the cure to AIDS and other diseases.

The Daily Mail has more:

For more than a decade, an international team of scientists has been trying to figure out the detailed molecular structure of an enzyme from an AIDS-like virus found in rhesus monkeys.

Such enzymes, known as retroviral proteases, play a key role in the virus' spread - and if medical researchers can figure out their structure, they could conceivably design drugs to stop the virus in its tracks.

Scientists know the pieces that make up a protein but cannot predict how those parts fit together into a 3D structure. And since proteins act like locks and keys, the structure is crucial.

There are millions of ways that the bonds between the atoms in the enzyme's molecules could twist and turn. To design the right chemical key, you have to figure out the most efficient, lowest-energy configuration for the molecule.

Using a game developed by the University of Washington called Foldit, a tool long recognized in the scientific community, players fold an enzyme into different shapes and are scored higher based on developing a molecule with a lower energy state. Scientists believe the enzyme structure they were looking for has been discovered with this game. More than 57,000 people played the game and were named in the paper published in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.

MSNBC reports that the "winning" structure was created by a person called "mimi,"  who in an email said she had been playing the game for three years.

"The game is not only an interesting intellectual challenge, allowing you to use your problem-solving skills, 'feel' for protein shapes, and whatever biochemical knowledge you have to obtain a solution to each puzzle, but it also provides a unique society of players driven by both individual and team rivalry with an overall purpose of improving the game and the results achieved. A body of knowledge has been built up in the Wiki by contributions from players, and ideas are constantly fed back to the game designers.

"In the case of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus, I had looked at the structure of the options we were presented with and identified that it would be better if the 'flap' could be made to sit closer to the body of the protein — one of the basic rules of folding is to make the protein as compact as possible — but when I tried this with my solo solution, I couldn't get it to work. However, when I applied the same approach to the evolved solution that had been worked on by other team members, I was able to get it to tuck in, and that proved to be the answer to the structure. I believe that it was the changes made by my colleagues that enabled mine to work, so it was very much a team effort.

"We were all very excited to hear that we had helped to find the answer to this crystal form, especially since it had been outstanding so long and other methods had been unsuccessful. The feeling of having done something that could make a significant contribution to research in this field is very special and unexpected. Foldit players have achieved a number of successes so far, and I hope we will go on to make many more.

"You may be aware that we asked for accreditation for the Foldit Contenders Team within the article, rather than being named individually."

Watch MSNBC's report:

Seth Cooper, University of Washington computer scientist and Foldit's lead designer and developer, hopes that this breakthrough helps strengthen the scientific community's acceptance of using tools like Foldit to "bring together the strengths of computers and humans."

Although non-scientists may have solved the puzzle, researchers did verify they found the correct enzyme structure.

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