Washington | Video gamers playing a popular online puzzle game have beaten scientists, college students and computer algorithms in a contest aimed at identifying a particular protein’s shape, researchers have found.
The findings have implications for video game enthusiasts and classroom instruction, and showcase the positive impact citizen science can have on research.
“It shows that anybody with a 3D mentality, including gamers, can do something that previously only scientists did, and in doing so they can help scientific progress,” said James Bardwell, professor at University of Michigan (UM) in the US.
Groups taking part in the competition included 469 video gamers who played Foldit – an online puzzle-solving game, where teams compete to fold the best protein, two trained crystallographers, 61 undergraduates who used a computer modelling programme in class, and two separate computer algorithms.
Scott Horowitz, a postdoctoral fellow at UM, said he plans to integrate Foldit into his class to motivate students to learn about a very complicated subject because the game is competitive and fun to play.
“I’ve seen how much players learn about proteins from playing this game,” Horowitz said.
“We spend weeks and weeks trying to jam this into students’ brains and Foldit players learn it naturally because it’s fun,” he added.
The students and professionals worked independently, reflecting the norm for scientists engaged in model building, while the winning video game players took a more collaborative approach.
The gamers’ superior outcome suggests that collaboration is a big help in achieving the best results.
“We think this is a big deal because interpreting an electron-density map can be a labour-intensive, error-prone process and we show that crowd-sourced Foldit players can do it as well as, or better than, professionally trained crystallographers,” said graduate student Brian Koepnick of the University of Washington Institute for Protein Design, who helped design the contest and analyse the results.
The next step is to incorporate the gamers’ tips and tricks into the software that scientists use when building these structures, researchers said.
Every function of the body involves proteins and understanding how they work is an important scientific question.
To that end, the study also found that analysis of the protein targeted by the competition uncovered a new family of proteins that appears to be involved in preventing plaque formation, which is implicated in diseases like Alzheimer’s.