Gamers beat scientists to making a protein discovery

It's proof that crowdsourced science can solve problems quickly.

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Jon Fingas
September 19, 2016 5:39 AM
Scott Horowitz
Scott Horowitz

It's no great shock to see citizen scientists make discoveries that professionals miss, but making it through a video game? That's different. Gamers playing Foldit, a puzzle title that has teams trying to fold the best protein, have identified the shape of a protein before scientists (including two trained experts and 61 University of Michigan undergrads) could manage the feat. And it's not as if there were legions of contributors, either, as it took a relatively modest 469 players to help out.

The protein in question may be particularly significant. It prevents plaque formation, hinting that it might help fight Alzheimer's if and when the medical community develops a practical use for it.

The achievement underscores the primary advantage of crowdsourced research: you can foster the kind of large-scale collaboration that would be utterly impractical for academics. At the same time, though, it may also demonstrate the value of adding a game element to scientific education. Paper co-author Scott Horowitz notes that Foldit players were quick to learn about proteins "because it's fun," while students take "weeks and weeks" of lectures to wrap their heads around the same concept. It's easy to see more studies turned into games going forward -- it could save scientists some valuable time.

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