Changing the Way Science is Done, One Click at a Time

Professor David BakerIt’s not everyday that a game challenges your problem-solving skills for the greater good. Foldit does just that to create a world of possibilities. Presented at the 2008 Games for Health Conference in Baltimore, the game lets human instinct contribute to advancing science.

The game, available for free download at fold.it, harvests the 3-D logic abilities of the human mind to twist and turn proteins in what the creators call “a 21st-century version of Tetris”.

The goal is to gain high scores by shaping proteins into their most stable shape. The proteins range from those found in diseases like cancer or HIV, to those of enzymes which may one day cure illness or help breakdown toxic waste. Finding a stable shape allows the protein to become more effective. Read More...

"We're hopefully going to change the way science is done, and who it's done by," said Zoran Popovic, associate professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, who presented the project last week at the Games for Health conference. "Our ultimate goal is to have ordinary people play the game and eventually be candidates for winning the Nobel Prize."

The game challenges players by having them warp and shift amino acids of proteins until they reach stability. A protein is stable when it uses the least energy to stay in position. Players earn points and compete against each other to solve these problems.

Similar programs have already been developed, which use computer processing power to attempt these simulations. In 2005, David Baker, a UW professor of biochemistry and researcher on the Foldit project, developed a program named Rosetta@home, tapping into volunteers' computer time all around the world. But even 200,000 volunteers wasn’t enough. It would take all the computers in the world centuries to solve these problems.

"There are too many possibilities for the computer to go through every possible one," Baker said. "An approach like Rosetta@home does well on small proteins, but as the protein gets bigger and bigger it gets harder and harder, and the computers often fail. People, using their intuition, might be able to home in on the right answer much more quickly," he added in a UW news article.

The group hopes Foldit will advance science by discovering protein-folding prodigies who have natural abilities to see proteins in 3-D. "I imagine that there's a 12-year-old in Indonesia who can see all this in their head," Baker says.

"Some people are just able to look at the game and in less than two minutes, get to the top score," said Popovic. "They can't even explain what they're doing, but somehow they're able to do it."

Nearly 1,000 players have tested the system in recent weeks, facing off in informal challenges and working on proteins with known shapes. But starting last week, developers opened the game to the public and presented proteins of unknown shapes.

Foldit gamers will face off against research groups around the world in a major protein-structure competition held every two years. Top players will see their work credited in scientific publications. Winning protein designs will be synthesized in Baker's lab and tested in petri dishes.

"Long-term, I'm hoping that we can get a significant fraction of the world's population engaged in solving critical problems in world health, and doing it collaboratively and successfully through the game," Baker said. "We're trying to use the brain power of people all around the world to advance biomedical research."

The program was developed by doctoral student Seth Cooper and postdoctoral researcher Adrien Treuille, both in computer science and engineering. They also worked with Zoran Popovic, David Baker and with David Salesin, a UW professor of computer science and engineering.

This research project is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Microsoft Corp. and Adobe Systems Inc., and through fellowships at Nvidia Corp. and Intel Corp.