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Foldit gamers beat boffins to AIDS breakthrough

Gamers have beaten scientists to a key milestone in the fight to develop a cure of AIDS.

Players of the online protein-folding game Foldit discovering the structure of a protein involved in the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV), an HIV-like retrovirus that causes AIDS in monkeys and apes - something that has eluded boffins for more than ten years.

Gamers from groups including the 'Foldit Contenders Group' and 'Foldit Void Crushers Group' used their pattern-recognition skills to help scientists at the University of Washington model the crystal structure of the M-PMV retroviral protease (PR), a protein responsible for the virus's growth.

Determining the way in which the amino acid chains in a protein are folded is key to understanding the protein's structure - but because of the massive range of possibilities, a task that scientists have tried to solve using distributed computing schemes such as Stanford University's Folding@home to provide the number-crunching power needs to test a huge number of hypothetical possibilities.

Foldit takes a different approach, employing human pattern recognition and problem-solving skills instead of brute number-crunching ability - and with the successful determining of the structure of M-PMV, the approach has borne fruit.

Players started with ten incorrect models of the virus, and tweaked them over the course of 16 days. During the course of the game, tens of thousands of combinations were tried, until a player named 'spvincent' came up with a structure that was much better than all previous versions - and two others, 'grabhorn' and 'mimi', improved on it. Within a few days, researchers had come up with the ultimate solution to the puzzle.

For more on Foldit and the problems of protein folding, see the video below from scientific journal Nature: