The WebWise conference was held in downtown Baltimore from March 9-11. The conference emphasized the role of museums and libraries in STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math) and the management and curation of research data (based on new requirements for data management plans in proposals to NSF and IMLS). The conference included many cool presentations. One that caught my attention is an interactive, online protein-folding game called FoldIt.

Instead of using a more or less brute-force approach through super computers trying to explore lots of possibilities and calculating which ones give the best results, the game uses the human brain’s pattern recognition abilities to find the lowest-energy folded state of a protein.

Turning protein folding into a game has many benefits: it’s fun, it can help teach the concept, and it can actually advance research. In 2010, Nature published a letter called Predicting protein structures with a multiplayer online game; here’s a bit of it:

“We show that top-ranked Foldit players excel at solving challenging structure refinement problems in which substantial backbone rearrangements are necessary to achieve the burial of hydrophobic residues. Players working collaboratively develop a rich assortment of new strategies and algorithms; unlike computational approaches, they explore not only the conformational space but also the space of possible search strategies. The integration of human visual problem-solving and strategy development capabilities with traditional computational algorithms through interactive multiplayer games is a powerful new approach to solving computationally-limited scientific problems.”

Foldit includes elements of multiplayer games in which people can team up, chat with other players and create online profiles. It will be interesting to see what kind of data is generated from this game and how someday it might translate into advances in medical research.

Most who play FoldIt are not biologists or biochemists. The designers of the game are hoping to find what they call protein savants, people who are really good at protein folding and visually able to see how protein folding can work. If you want to get started playing, either to reinforce what you already know or to learn more about it, you can visit the FoldIt website or their wiki.

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