Thursday, December 01, 2011

Citizen science: Solve scientific puzzles while playing

Foldit is an online multiplayer game, created by Seth Cooper and Zoran Popovic at the University of Washington. It’s designed to tap the collecting problem-solving skills of thousands of people, by reframing scientific problems in a way that even a complete novice can tackle.

In the game, players work together to decipher the structures of proteins. These molecules are feats of biological origami; they consist of long chains of amino acids that scrunch up into complicated three-dimensional shapes. Scientists need to resolve these shapes to understand how the proteins work, and the usual methods involve bouncing X-rays off purified crystals (which is difficult) or using predictive software (which is imperfect). Cooper and Popovic went down a third route: they got gamers to play their way to a solution.

Their game converts the complicated business of protein structures into simple language and mechanics. While scientists might “rotate alpha-helices” and “fix degrees of freedom”, Foldit players use intuitive controls to “tweak”, “wiggle” and “shake” their colourful, on-screen shapes. The system seems simple, but the players have used it to outperform Rosetta, the state-of-the-art programme for solving protein structures (and the one that Foldit itself spawned from). They even helped to figure out the structure of a protein that gone unsolved for over a decade – it took them three weeks.

Citizen science is clearly more than a good aproach to problems in science. Creativity can come from anybody and like Albert Einsten said: "Imagination is more important than knowledge"

Here are the links to the official page of the proyect, the link of the original article and the one from the news.

http://fold.it/portal/

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2011/11/07/computer-gamers-foldit-protein-algorithm/#more-5725

http://www.pnas.org/content/108/47/18949

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