The structure of an enzyme that causes a disease similar to AIDS in monkeys was resolved in 2011 by people playing an online game about protein folding called FoldIt. While researchers had been working at solving the problem for 13 years, the gamers had it solved within three weeks.
Okay, this is actually REALLY important and deserves more than just a little blurb.
So proteins fold up depending on the chain of amino acids that they’re built out of, right? This is super-important, because the SHAPE of a protein is what decides what that protein DOES. If you expose a protein to high levels of heat or other damaging scenarios, they become “denatured” and can’t do their job. Long story short: if we can figure out how proteins fold, we can figure out what they do and that opens up a whole new wealth of knowledge.
So what’s the big problem? Well, as it turns out, figuring out how a protein folds is REALLY HARD. One person sitting there and staring at a screen could never do it. For years, scientists have been trying to create programs that can do the work, but they took forever, and often gave faulty results. Basically, everything was terrible.
One day, though, a group of scientists thought that maybe if they could get a BUNCH of people to stare at a screen they’d have a better chance of figuring it out. Turns out, the human brain is HELLA good at figuring out puzzles, and we even do it for fun! So the scientists made a game out of it, and put it up for free online.
The results were incredible! With millions of people all going at a problem that was previously thought to be impossible, they solved it in three weeks! THREE WEEKS!
In case you’re not grasping this: THEY CROWD-SOURCED SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH. Now, this means that they don’t own the results, but they can do things never before possible! By accessing the combined brain power of the human race we’re all working together to make a better future! HOW CAN YOU NOT BE AMAZED BY THAT!
Go play FoldIt, and also EteRNA, which is similar, but for RNA folding instead. Do it. Do it for humanity.