Foldit began as an experimental research project developed by the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science in collaboration with UW’s Baker Biochemistry Laboratory. The idea has turned a complex process into a simple, addictive game—often compared to solving a 3D jigsaw puzzle — that gives players both the thrill of competition and the satisfaction of contributing to a project that has a critical social impact.
In the game, players are presented with a 3D model of a protein that they can manipulate by clicking and dragging its sections. The amino acid chains that make up proteins naturally want to fold into the lowest-energy shape, so the goal of a Foldit puzzle is to make the protein’s structure as compact as possible, while still keeping the chains intact and respecting the basic properties of proteins. The winning designs help researchers learn more about the shapes of proteins. The more we understand about these structures, the easier it is to design new proteins with desired functions, leading to the development of vaccines and disease-curing drugs.
Crowdsourcing is the basis of Foldit’s success: it uses the creative problem-solving of thousands of people to refine computation. By taking complex biomedical problems and crowd-sourcing their possible solutions, FoldIt has democratized a design process typically isolated in a lab and innovated a way for amateur players and designers to help solve the world’s toughest medical questions.
Foldit players are already solving biochemical problems that were stumbling blocks to scientific research. For example, in 2010, players determined the structure of a key protease, or protein-cutting enzyme, of the Mason-Pfizer Monkey Virus (M-PMV), a retrovirus that leads to AIDS in rhesus monkeys. It took Foldit three weeks to complete a task that biochemists had struggled with for over a decade.