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.