Wasting Time for a Good Cause

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. A freelance science and health journalist, Maggie lives in Minneapolis, brain dumps on Twitter, and writes quite often for mental_floss magazine.

I may regret this. Last night, I started playing Foldit, a free computer game that's rapidly becoming every bit as addictive as, say, Crayon Physics Deluxe, which is, to say, dangerous. Very, very dangerous.

On the plus side, I will at least be losing productivity for a good cause. Released about a year ago, Foldit is a puzzle game that harnesses the power of human putzing to help scientists unravel the mysteries of protein structure. Long chains of amino acids folded in on themselves like a biochemical game of Twister, proteins do most of the heavy lifting around your body; moving and storing important molecules like oxygen and iron, controlling your growth, making your immune system work ... they're kind of a big deal. Scientists know the genetic sequence of proteins, as well as many of their functions, but still don't know a lot about how and why the amino acid chains twist and turn into their complex shapes.

That's where Foldit comes in. Computer programs could calculate all the possible protein shapes, but it would take far longer than the average researcher's life span. Instead, the University of Washington team that developed Foldit is hoping that human game-players can figure things out faster.

After playing a series of practice challenges that teach the rules--basically the laws of physics as applied to protein structure--players are then set on tasks that use their natural 3-D problem solving skills to pin down the best structures for certain proteins. The hitch: Game developers don't know what the "best" answer is, so you can't get any hints. And points are awarded not by how close you're getting to the known solution, but by how much energy would be needed to hold a real-life protein in the shape you've created. The real challenge comes from competing against other players to make the highest-point-collecting version of a specific protein.

Researchers hope to use the game play to make better protein structure prediction software, based on gamers' strategies; to have players figure out the mysteries of proteins that don't yet have a known structure; and to create challenges that let players design new proteins that could fill some real-world needs---like disabling a specific virus.

All of which are fine and noble answers for you to toss out there when your boss asks what, exactly, you're doing fiddling with a computer game on company time.

Many thanks (I think) to Mun-Keat Looi, the Twitter friend who turned me on to Foldit.


  1. This article deserves a mention of Folding@home, a peer-to-peer protein folding application. It’s a great way to do some good with your computer when it’d otherwise be idle. It’s at folding.stanford.edu.

  2. Very cool idea. Although Wikipedia editing will always be my number one “wasting time for a good cause” activity.

  3. Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada.

  4. Fantastic Article !

    I am Aotearoa, I have been folding protein via Fold.it for a long time now, perhaps 9 months.

    This is, without a doubt the most challenging, exciting, stimulating, intense, addictive game I have ever played, did I just say game? nah, this is life… Real life! stuff that effects real people and YOU could be the person who discovers the breakthrough of a lifetime, by playing it.

    I don’t have a science background or diplomas in anything, but that doesn’t matter playing this game because everyone is equal, you have to teach yourself or join a group to get support to learn.

    Beating the scientists at their own game always makes me laugh… technique wins the puzzles, learning the tools to Fold with and how the protein reacts to your touch will help ALOT.

    Intution and patience all come together when you try hard, for hours at times… and when you are alomst beaten or asleep and want to give up, you make the breakthrough and pass everyone else, doing and using the exact same tools as yourself, nothing feels better than watching them squirm or break.

    See you there.

    Renton aka player Aotearoa:
    Team Richard Dawkins Foundation

  5. Great article Maggie, and thanks for the shout out. Kudo really goes to @zefrank and @marthasadie who first introduced me to Foldit.

    Another great crowdsourcing science game (though rather different) is being run by Signtific Lab


  6. Tip of the hat to #1 and another plug for Folding@home. I’ve had 2 Macs and a PS3 Folding@home 24/7 for 2+ years. Stanford University is publishing peer reviewed scientific papers of their work with proteins and distributed computing. There are over 250k active cpus generating 4.7 petaflops of computational power.

  7. Umm, otherwise great, but I can’t create an account as the input field doesn’t seem to accept alt+2 (@ in OSX) as a valid key combination. Also tried via the character palette, but no dice. Anybody else have this problem?

  8. A small but important matter related to matter: oxygen and iron are not “molecules”. They are chemical elements.

    Proceed with folding…

  9. WOW this is a GREAT thread! I love and will use all these links.

    I’d also love to know how the folks at foldit are mining their data to find human-like solving strategies. I mean, are they just fitting some penalty parameter–or are particular sequences of changes being saved for use in other contexts–or something even cooler?

  10. @#12

    Except, of course, for the fact that the word for O2 is actually “dioxygen”. I know that hardly anyone refers to O2 as “dioxygen” but the poster is a science writer and thus should value precision.

    And certainly including iron as a “molecule” is worse that imprecise. It’s just wrong.

    But let’s get back to our folding…

Comments are closed.