Gamers Help Scientists with Major Step to AIDS Cure

From Ars Technica:

The players of the online protein-folding game Foldit (which we’ve reported on before) outperformed scientists by discovering the structure of a protein involved in the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV). The M-PMV is a retrovirus, like HIV, that causes AIDS in monkeys and apes. Understanding its structure will help researchers develop antiretroviral drugs that can fight HIV—but this has been a mystery for over a decade.

Proteins consist of long chains of amino acids, molecules made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Figuring out the order of the amino acids is easy, but that's only part of the story—the amino acid chain folds into complex shapes that determine the function of the protein. Due to the incredibly high number of degrees of freedom, understanding this structure is one of the hardest problems in modern science. A lot of research has focused on designing programs dedicated to solving this problem, which is mainly an energy minimization task (the correct shape is the most stable, the one with the lowest energy).

The Foldit players were given ten different, incorrect models as a starting place. Over the course of sixteen days, players tweaked the designs, coming up with tens of thousands of variations. Then, the breakthroughs: a player named "spvincent" came up with a structure much better than any previous iteration, and two more players ("grabhorn" and "mimi") quickly improved on it. With a few more days of work, the researchers completed the solution. Achievement unlocked, indeed.

So. Freaking. Cool.