Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in Group Magazine–the world’s most-read youth ministry resource. For more information, visit groupmagazine.com and get these great articles delivered right to your mailbox or iPad!
I’m not a gamer. Associate editor Scott Firestone has logged hundreds of hours on an Xbox controller. So imagine the crash of tectonic plates whenever I use words like “psychologically addicting” and “most potentially dangerous entertainment option ever” in casual conversation with him. If only he could coerce me into his Halo universe, I’m sure I’d be riddled with automatic-weapons fire in short order.
This is why, in cat-eats-bird exultation, he recently sent me a news bit that trumpeted a major medical breakthrough that had confounded researchers for years—right up until they gave a team of college-student gamers the challenge of tackling the problem. In just three weeks, online game-players figured out the structure of a retrovirus protein that had stumped scientists for more than a decade. The result is that researchers can now develop a whole new generation of AIDS drugs that promise much greater effectiveness than current drugs.
The protein targeted by scientists, called a protease, plays a critical role in how some viruses, including HIV, multiply. For more than a decade the smartest medical professionals in the world have been trying to find a way to “deactivate” these proteases, but they couldn’t unlock the enzyme’s structure. So researchers at the University of Washington turned to Foldit, a program created by the university a few years ago that transforms problems of science into competitive computer games. They challenged players to use their three-dimensional problem-solving skills to construct a better model of the protein.
A few days later, the gamers had accomplished what the best minds in the medical world could not. Because of their work, scientists can now identify more precise targets for drugs to block the enzyme. In a Fox News report, the study’s lead author Firas Khatib says: “We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed. The ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.” Even more, this result opens the door for even broader applications of crowd-sourcing and online game-playing in the quest for scientific discoveries.
Touché, Mr. Firestone.