Could a video game yield a breakthrough cure for AIDS?

Alan Boyle at Cosmic Log reports on the latest example of a growing trend in open science or collaborative science. It may seem unbelievable, but he writes, “Video-game players have solved a molecular puzzle that stumped scientists for years, and those scientists say the accomplishment could point the way to crowdsourced cures for AIDS and other diseases.”

However, before Call of Duty fans use this as an excuse to log even more hours in front of the tv, the video game in question isn’t a shoot ‘em up, XBOX 360 kind of game, rather it is a game called Foldit in which players

manipulate virtual molecular structures that look like multicolored, curled-up Tinkertoy sets. The virtual molecules follow the same chemical rules that are obeyed by real molecules. When someone playing the game comes up with a more elegant structure that reflects a lower energy state for the molecule, his or her score goes up. If the structure requires more energy to maintain, or if it doesn’t reflect real-life chemistry, then the score is lower.

Researchers posted the monkey virus puzzle to Foldit as “kind of a last-ditch effort,” according to Firas Khatib, the lead author of a paper reporting these findings in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology. Not only did Foldit gamers solve the puzzle, they did so in record time — 10 days.

This feat is the latest real-world example of the power of Open Science — a new form of collaborative science that draws on “scientists” both professional and citizen and harnesses the power of the internet to collaborate over great distances. Science has traditionally rewarded solo endeavors, but increasing numbers of researchers are turning to these novel research methods.

Boyle describes the Foldit success as “a giant leap for citizen science — a burgeoning field that enlists Internet users to look for alien planets, decipher ancient texts and do other scientific tasks that sheer computer power can’t accomplish as easily.” Think you have what it takes to play Foldit and perhaps contribute to the next big medical breakthrough? You can join in the fun here: http://fold.it/

So, why does this matter to Princeton University Press? In November, we will publish the timely book Reinventing Discovery by Michael Nielsen. In the book, Nielsen, a leading proponent of Open Science, describes how the internet and crowd-sourcing are contributing to collaborative science and plots the way forward. He even has a section of the book devoted to the development of Foldit and why it is so successful. He describes concrete methods to encourage collaboration even in fields that have traditionally eschewed these forms of collaboration. If you would like to sample this book, a free excerpt is now available on our web site here: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s9517.pdf (PDF)