Gamers solve HIV puzzle that went unsolved for years in just 10 days

FolditTwo years ago, if you attended a lecture on the impact of gamification, it was only a question of time before the speaker would list FoldIt as the eminent example of what a collective of gamers can achieve. FoldIt now strikes again, this time in relation to an HIV-related puzzle.

It was a last-ditch effort, a desperate parting shot in what may have been the very last second of the game — a battle in which scientists at the University of Washington had been engaged in for over 10 years.

All the while, the best brains puzzled over deciphering an enzyme that showed a large number of behavioral patterns that can also be seen with AIDS. This led the researchers to believe that the enzyme might play a critical role in the search for a cure for the big disease with the little name.

In their last bid for victory, the researchers uploaded a 3D model of their ‘M-PMV retroviral protein’ to the online game FoldIt, where a collective of gamers embarked on turning and folding the enzyme in all possible combinations.

It took the FoldIt community just 10 days to crack the puzzle and find the optimum state for the enzyme, one that offered the team of scientists insight into the way the enzyme works and how it can be tackled using medication.

“This was really kind of a last-ditch effort. Can the Foldit players really solve it? They actually did it in less than 10 days.” – Firas Khatib, biochemist.

As we already indicated, the FoldIt platform is far from unfamiliar to scientists who are faced with a puzzle that they would like to present to millions of gamers across the world. I expect a revival in FoldIt mentions in upcoming lectures!