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Foldit is an online game that uses crowdsourcing to enable players to contribute to scientific research about protein folding, a vital biochemical process at the basis of most cellular function. Foldit 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 critical social impact.

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.

In Foldit, 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 ‘design,’ so the goal of a Foldit puzzle is to make the protein’s structure as compact and symmetrical as possible while still keeping the chains intact (and respecting the basic properties of proteins; explained in a series of introductory levels.)

Crowdsourcing is the basis of Foldit’s success: it uses the creative problem-solving of thousands of people to refine computation.

The winning designs created by the gamers help researchers learn more about the shapes of proteins. The more we understand about these structures, the easier it is to design new proteins that can “shut off” mutation, leading to the development of vaccines and disease-curing drugs. In fact, 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.

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.