Some people have made strides in AIDS research by obtaining PhDs, winning research grants and applying years of dogged work in the laboratory -- but the latest breakthrough came from amateurs playing games on the Internet.
Thousands of people playing an Internet game called Foldit successfully formulated a structure for a key enzyme related to the development of the AIDS virus, coming up with a model that had consistently eluded scientists.
By using a game developed by researchers at the University of Washington, players were able to come up with a viable structure for a protein that's crucial to the early development of AIDS. Foldit allows users to assemble potential proteins out of different molecular building blocks, and video game players ended up accomplishing what scientists couldn't.
People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at, said Seth Cooper, a University of Washington computer scientist who is Foldit's lead designer and developer. Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans.
Few of the players had any background or training in biochemisty, but expertise isn't required to excel in Foldit. Users who evinced good spatial reasoning skills were able to operate the game skillfully, and scientists improved upon the user-generated models.
A type of enzyme known as a retroviral protease helps AIDS to proliferate in its early stages. Now that scientists have a good idea of the enzyme's structure, it'll be easier for them to develop treatments that can attack the enzyme.
This is one small piece of the puzzle in being able to help with AIDS, Firas Khatib, a biochemist at the University of Washington and lead author of a research paper on the project, told MSNBC.
The success of Foldit hints at the possibilities of citizen science, a scientific method that involves recruiting large numbers of people to help solve scientific problems. The field encompasses everything from categorizing different types of galaxies to using games, like Foldit, that help users to rapidly gain expertise in a subject.