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Winners of New Video Game Could Score Nobel Prize

By Katherine Noyes
May 16, 2008 8:30 AM PT

Fighting the animated powers of evil may be a reward unto itself for some gamers, but it can't hold a candle to finding a cure for cancer. A new game from scientists at the University of Washington, however, aims to tap gamers' brain power to make medical discoveries, with the potential even to win the Nobel Prize.

Winners of New Video Game Could Score Nobel Prize

The game, Foldit, focuses on protein strands and the distinct structural folds that set them apart. Those folds are widely considered the key to finding cures for many of the world's diseases and problems, but all the computers in the world would take centuries to understand all the possible shapes they can take.

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

Visualizing in 3-D

Foldit looks like a 21st-century version of Tetris, with multicolored geometric snakes filling the screen. The free game's introductory levels teach gamers the rules, which are the same laws of physics by which protein strands curl and twist into 3-D shapes. After about 20 minutes of training, players are ready to move on.

Scientific skills are not required; rather, Foldit capitalizes on people's natural 3-D problem-solving skills. In fact, David Baker, a UW professor of biochemistry and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, says his 13-year-old son is faster at folding proteins than he is.

"I imagine that there's a 12-year-old in Indonesia who can see all this in their head," Baker said.

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," said Popovic. "They can't even explain what they're doing, but somehow they're able to do it."

Rosetta Relative

Foldit was developed by doctoral student Seth Cooper and postdoctoral researcher Adrien Treuille, both in computer science and engineering, working with Popovic, Baker and David Salesin, a UW professor of computer science and engineering.

The game uses the same Rosetta protein-folding software employed by the Rosetta@home project designed by Baker in 2005. That project just uses donated processing power, however, and it's limited to the analysis of smaller proteins.

"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," Baker said. "People, using their intuition, might be able to home in on the right answer much more quickly."

Professional game designers provided advice during the game's creation, and a team including UW graduate and undergraduate students spent more than a year figuring out how to make the game both accurate and engaging.

Zapping Viruses

Some 1,000 players have tested the system in recent weeks, playing informal challenges using proteins with known shapes. Starting last week, however, the developers opened up the game to the public with proteins of unknown shapes.

Designing a protein from scratch is something computers alone can't do, but beginning this fall Foldit problems will expand to involve creating new proteins that we might wish existed, such as enzymes that could absorb carbon dioxide from the air.

Eventually, the researchers hope to challenge players to devise a protein with just the right shape to lock into a virus such as HIV or malaria and deactivate it.

Winners Go to the Dish

Winning protein designs will be synthesized in Baker's lab and tested in petri dishes. High-scoring players will be credited in scientific publications the way that top Rosetta@home contributors already are credited for their computer time.

"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 research was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Microsoft and Adobe, and through fellowships at Nvidia and Intel.

'Web 2.0 Approach'

"This is really great," Ted Pollak, senior analyst for the gaming industry with Jon Peddie Research, told TechNewsWorld.

Socially conscious gamers will be most interested, as well as those interested in science, Pollak predicted. "I think it's a really positive step," he said.

Assuming the game is engaging enough to capture users' interest, "it's a really clever way to address the problem," added Greg Sterling, founder of Sterling Market Intelligence.

"This is taking a 'wisdom of the crowds' and Web 2.0 approach to medical research," Sterling told TechNewsWorld. "If it yields anything, it will be a model for other disciplines and problems."


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