Gamers helping UW in Ebola research (The Seattle Times)

Players of the online computer game Foldit are helping University of Washington researchers in their search for a cure for the Ebola virus.

[A screen shot shows an Ebola puzzle presented six months ago on the University of Washington’s science puzzle site, Foldit. Players looked for places where a yellow and blue amino-acid chain could attach to the gray structure depicting part of the Ebola virus.] 

Players of the online computer game Foldit are helping University of Washington researchers in their search for a cure for the Ebola virus.
Months before the recent Ebola outbreak erupted in Western Africa, killing more than a thousand people, scientists at the University of Washington’s Institute for Protein Design were looking for a way to stop the deadly virus.

For inspiration, they turned to an unlikely source: gamers.

Specifically, they asked thousands of computer-game enthusiasts worldwide to tackle an Ebola puzzle on the interactive game Foldit, a 6-year-old project that encourages people to solve puzzles for science.

Some of those solutions were so promising that researchers have started to investigate them.

The collaborative work between scientists and game players could as easily be a dead end as a breakthrough. But one thing is clear: The three-dimensional insights by Foldit players helped jump-start an effort to design proteins that could one day help neutralize the deadly disease.

“We actually noticed that the scientists don’t know where to start” when beginning to design a protein to counter Ebola, said Zoran Popovic, director of the Center for Game Science at the UW, which runs Foldit. “What Foldit is doing is creating three, four, five possible places to start from.”

Designing proteins from scratch in the laboratory to block emerging diseases is a new idea, more science fiction than reality. Scientists think it could one day be used to quickly create treatments for dangerous new diseases, or even block old ones, such as influenza.

Six months ago — by coincidence, around the time the current Ebola virus outbreak was identified in southeastern Guinea — biochemistry senior fellow Vikram Mulligan, with the UW’s Institute for Protein Design, put up an Ebola puzzle on Foldit.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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