Game designers have spent countless years of collective brainpower to rescuing princesses or protecting the planet against alien invasions but now researchers at the University of Washington are trying to use those skills to make medical discoveries, perhaps even finding a cure for HIV.
They have developed a new game, named Foldit, a three-dimensional Tetris, which is the latest incarnation of a project, called Rosetta@home that uses spare computer time, via a screensaver, to work out how proteins fold.
Proteins are the building blocks of life inside cells; they are first made as long chains of molecules and work properly only after they have folded into their final shape.
However, understanding the rules of protein folding remains one of biology's central problems.
"We're hopefully going to change the way science is done, and who it's done by. Our ultimate goal is to have ordinary people play the game and eventually be candidates for winning the Nobel Prize," said Zoran Popovic, a UW associate professor of computer science and engineering.
Foldit is the first protein-folding project that asks volunteers for something other than unused processor cycles on their computers or Playstation machines.
The game also differs from recent human-computer interactive games that use humans' ability to recognize images or interpret text.
Instead, Foldit capitalizes on people's natural 3-D problem-solving skills.
Eventually, the researchers hope to advance science by discovering protein-folding prodigies who have natural abilities to see proteins in 3-D.
"Some people are just able to look at the game and in less than two minutes, get to the top score. They can't even explain what they're doing, but somehow they're able to do it," said Popovic.
Further, the researchers hope to present a medical nemesis, such as HIV or malaria, and challenge players to devise a protein with just the right shape to lock into the virus and deactivate it.
The game was developed by doctoral student Seth Cooper and postdoctoral researcher Adrien Treuille, both in computer science and engineering, working with Popovic; David Baker, a UW professor of biochemistry and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator; and David Salesin, a UW professor of computer science and engineering.
Professional game designers provided advice during the game's creation.
The project was at the Games for Health meeting in Baltimore.