Who says video games are a waste of time? Well, a lot of people over a certain age. But gaming might just help us learn more about the coronavirus, says a team at the University of Washington in Seattle. They are using a video game called Foldit to learn more about the virus.
Foldit is a puzzle, run by academic research scientists, that is free to play and not for profit. Its purpose is to give players a visual by letting them fold proteins in order to better understand their structure – a key element in understanding how structures like COVID-19 (the coronavirus) work, which would also help develop a vaccine. Viruses, in general, consist of genetic material, a protein coat, and an outside lipid envelope. In the coronavirus, the protein coat has “spike” proteins on its surface that helps it bind tightly to a receptor protein on the surface of human cells. Designing a protein that can bind to that spike, preventing it from sticking to human cells, could stop the infection from happening.
As explained in a video update by the Foldit team, that’s exactly what the game’s recent coronavirus puzzle is supposed to help turn into reality. “We want to give Foldit players the opportunity to design proteins that can bind to the spike protein and prevent infection,” explained Foldit scientist Brian Koepnick in the video. However, it may yet be a while until a working solution is found. Even then, laboratory testing could take even more time until the solution is deemed both safe and effective.
It’s not just scientists who are working on the puzzle now. Thousands of people from different backgrounds are now playing, and their efforts could be equally fruitful as those of professionals. “Players learn all they need to know simply by playing, and biochemists tend to perform no better than laypersons,” the team says, adding that, “The team has brought a few top scoring players to the [University of Washington] to observe their folding strategies.” Apparently, when you’re a layperson, you may think of trying something that wouldn’t occur to someone playing by the rules.
Regardless of whether or not you know the rules – and how well – you can also be a part of the search for the cure. All you have to do is download the game and create a username. Who knows? Maybe your name could become part of history (and biology) textbooks in the future.
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