There is no vaccine for the Covid-19 coronavirus epidemic that has spread to over 50 countries in just a few months, but a group of researchers are hoping a videogame might help. Called Foldit, this game was developed by researchers from the University of Washington and requires players to solve complicated puzzles by folding protein chains to create new structures that have different functions.
When it was first released in 2008, Foldit's team hoped the program might help discover a cure for HIV/AIDs or Alzheimers, since both are diseases made up mostly of proteins. But yesterday, the developers added a new puzzle based on the cellular structure of the coronavirus in hopes that players might be key to developing a cure.
How Foldit works is complicated, but it is designed so that anyone can play. The gist is that players take protein chains and manipulate them into different shapes, which in turn defines how that protein functions. A score is given based on how effective your solution is, with a scoreboard tracking the best ideas. Foldit's community of some 200,000 players don't just compete with one another but also collaborate to find the most effective designs that researchers can then experiment with in the real world to determine their efficacy.
"Coronaviruses display a 'spike' protein on their surface, which binds tightly to a receptor protein found on the surface of human cells," explains the new coronavirus puzzle description. "Once the coronavirus spike binds to the human receptor, the virus can infect the human cell and replicate. In recent weeks, researchers have determined the structure of the 2019 coronavirus spike protein and how it binds to human receptors. If we can design a protein that binds to this coronavirus spike protein, it could be used to block the interaction with human cells and halt infection!"
In a video about the new puzzle, one of Foldit's developers explains that this new puzzle comes in two difficulty modes. The easiest one tasks players with folding an already existing protein to come up with a new shape that will block the coronavirus' spike protein. The more challenging puzzle requires players to design that protein from scratch.
What's cool is that the University of Washington has confirmed that the most promising designs will be tested and possibly manufactured to see if they work in the real world, although Foldit's developers caution that this process will take a long time.
Still, Foldit and its community have done some promising work in the past. Back in 2011, Foldit users solved a small but extremely difficult problem in decoding the AIDS virus that had stumped scientists for years. While there's no guarantee that Foldit will play a major role in fighting coronavirus, it's great that anyone can download the program and help.
Foldit is a part of new branch of science called citizen science, which uses brute manpower to help solve extremely complicated problems. For example, EVE Online added a minigame that rewarded players with in-game loot for doing basic pattern recognition puzzles that help map the human genome. A year later, that minigame was augmented so that players were identifying potential exoplanets in other solar systems instead.
If you want to give folding protein chains a try, Foldit is free and can be downloaded here.