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New video game may help save lives

Monday, October 06, 2008
Every piece you move affects every other piece on
the board.

Every piece you move affects every other piece on the board.

First, it was "citizen journalist". Now, it's "citizen scientist", non- professionals using computers at home to change the face of medicine. The newest example is a free multiplayer videogame some are calling "molecular chess".

"FoldIt!" is a video game that could save a life one day. The object of the game is to fold a protein.

Your life is powered by proteins, little molecules that move your muscles, or send signals from your brain, or turn food into energy. What a protein does is largely determined not just by chemistry, but by the way it is folded.

Computer graphics scientists Adrien Treuille of Carnegie-Mellon University calls it, "Sort of like a 3D puzzle. It's sort of like Tetris." Improperly-folded proteins often result in disease. So, one of the most important challenges in biology is identifying the fold of every protein. It's time-consuming and expensive.

To solve that, an innovative program at Stanford University is using ordinary personal computers around the world. 350,000 citizens have downloaded a little program called Folding@Home to donate spare computer time over the Internet-- even 30,000 Sony Playstations. It's based on technology developed at UC Berkeley for the SETI at Home project to find extraterrestrial life.

Now, some other researchers are taking a different approach, recognizing that human intuition can be faster than a computer. Professor Treuille and a team at the University of Washington turned the whole thing into a competitive online game.

"It's a big, hairy thing on my screen, and my job is to twist it up so that it's as tightly packed as possible."

The challenge is that every piece you move, affects every other piece on the board. That's just like chess.

"Yes, this is basically molecular chess," says Treuille. "It's the chess of life."

In less than 8 weeks time, tens of thousands of gamers have already downloaded the free game and begun to play against each other for points in realtime.

"The first thing that happened was our servers crashed, because we weren't ready for that many people," Treuille laughs.

Soon, some 12-year-old could rock the world by using a videogame to create a new protein that helps prevent or treat disease.

"One of the dreams when we were creating this project was that we'll find a protein savant somewhere in the world -- the next Kasparov of protein folding."

With the Next Step in games, Richard Hart, ABC7 News.

------- Links -------
Download and play FoldIt!

Donate computer time to Folding@Home


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