'Foldit' Gamers Solve AIDS Puzzle that Baffled Scientists for Decade

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How amazing is this: U.S. gamers, playing a protetin-folding game called Foldit, have helped to unlock the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme the scientific community had been unable to for a decade.

The solution represents a significant step forward in the quest to cure retroviral diseases like AIDS. AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, severely compromises the body’s cellular immunity, making sufferers dramatically less resistance to infection. It’s considered a global pandemic, infecting over 33 million people worldwide with nearly three million estimated to become infected and two million actually dying from it annually.

To date, there is no cure, but we may be a trifle closer, thanks to a freebie science-angled computer game.

You know Foldit? As in Fold.it? The “solve puzzles for science” freebie crowdsourcing experiment that encourages gamers to fiddle with proteins (and linking amino acids) in an attempt to come up with their optimal “folded” states? Think 3D tinker toys, except the solutions here could actually save lives.In this case, it sounds like the enzyme, a Mason-Pfizer monkey virus retroviral protease, was modeled by gamers in just three weeks time. The discovery will reportedly help researchers in their quest to treat retroviral conditions like HIV (Human immunodeficiency virus), which can lead to AIDS.According to the Foldit blog:

This is the second Nature paper we published with Foldit discoveries. This is [a] truly amazing accomplishment. All Foldit players should be proud.

And that’s not all—the game’s apparently on the verge of several additional breakthroughs, too:

We also have two more in the pipeline one of the algorithmic discoveries in Foldit recipes, and a brand new synthetic protein discovered primarily due to the insight of Foldit protein design. Stay tuned.

You can read the full paper, co-published with Nature, by clicking here (links to PDF). (Matt Peckham/Time)

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