Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Gamers defeat HIV mystery

HIV - Could scientists and gamers be on to a cure?

Interesting news today from the computing world. It seems that online gamers have done what scientists have been unable to do by themselves, that is, decrypt the structure of an enzyme in a family of retroviruses that includes the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The monomeric protease enzyme is described as a cutting agent used to tailor retroviruses on a molecular level. Scientists have known about the enzyme for a while, but they could only observe it under an electron microscope which yielded a flat, two-dimensional image. Thanks to a partnership with the gamers, who utilized a special gaming program called Foldit, the scientists were able to understand the complex three-dimensional structure of the enzyme. Understanding the structure could eventually lead to further insight as to how certain diseases like HIV spread and how to design specific blockers to halt them. Foldit was developed as a game by the University of Washington in 2008 in which teams of gamers were enlisted to unfold chains of amino acids, considered the building blocks of proteins. In just three weeks time the gamers were able to unlock the mystery of the enzyme and delivered an accurate three-dimensional model of its structure. Scientists who credited the gamers for the discovery along with themselves say this is the first time that computer gamers have contributed to such a discovery. It shows that the gamers' human spatial reasoning can rise above the skills sets enployed by computers alone. Scientists failed because they could not develop a way to interpret the data from the computers without this extra level of spatial reasoning honed in Foldit. It shows that computers need humans in order to advance to a higher level and dashes much of the doom and gloom forecasts of the downfall of human intellect attributed to the computer. The entire story is presented in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology. (You may want to take my word because the cost of reading the article is $32.) This may be just the first step in many new ones to come which could lead to the understanding of the behavior of retroviruses like HIV and could help bring about a cure for the devastating disease of AIDS.

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