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Gamers > Scientists: Cracked Molecular AIDS Puzzle

by Adriana Lee | September 21, 2011September 21, 2011 8:00 pm PDT

Video gamers managed to solve a baffling molecular puzzle that stumped the global scientific community for years.

Researchers have worked for over a decade, trying to map out the molecular structure of a particular enzyme from an AIDS-like virus in rhesus monkeys. These enzymes (retroviral proteases) are a major factor in how the virus spreads, so figuring them out might lead to drugs that could stop the disease. But it’s insanely tricky: The key is to mimic Mother Nature and come up with the most efficient, lowest-energy molecular arrangement, but there are millions of different ways the atoms within are able to link up. This is what has baffled scientists for so long.

But this obstacle didn’t stump the gamers. Using Foldit, an online game that morphs scientific conundrums surrounding protein-folding into puzzles and points, players arranged virtual molecules that were subject to the same chemical rules as their real-life counterparts. Scores went up whenever users got a configuration with a lower energy state, and scores tanked when their molecules required more energy.

Given how addicted some people can be to games, the end result here is both predictable and completely, utterly amazing: It took the online gaming community less than 10 days to crack what scientists weren’t able to do in 10+ years.

Achievement unlocked: AIDS Exiler badge earned.

For more on Foldit, the online game with 236,000+ registered users, hit up the vid created by Nature at the bottom, below MSNBC’s coverage of this remarkable story.

[via Cosmic Log/MSNBC]

Adriana Lee

Adriana is the resident writer-slash-culture vulture who has written about everything from smartphones, tablets, apps, accessories, and small biz...