Monday, September 19, 2011

If One Citizen Science Project Doesn't Succeed...Try Another!

Photo Courtesy:
Iván Martínez / Wikimedia Commons
Over the weekend ran an interesting article about the citizen science fight against AIDS.  Summarizing a recently published article in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, it describes how the protein-folding game FoldIt has helped solve the structure of an enzyme important to understanding AIDS and similar diseases.  The protein, a protease in the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus  that plays a key role in it's replication process, works in a similar way to HIV-1 proteases and understanding this structure may be key to understanding HIV replication as well.

The most newsworthy part of this article is obviously the scientific breakthrough.  But there's also a very interesting citizen science story here as two different projects have combined to provide an answer that neither could on its own.

To investigate the protein's structure researchers initially looked to the Rosetta@Home program for an answer.  This distributed computing project takes data about the molecular make-up of proteins and uses the donated time of distributed computing participants to derive the protein's actual structure.  After much effort the program actually did not came close and provided some key insights into the structure, but an ultimate solution was not found.

That's when the researchers turned to FoldIT.  Starting with five potential solutions from the Rosetta program, they asked volunteers to use their own creativity to finish determining the structure.  This is a key strength of the FoldIt project which turns deriving protein-strucutres into a video game and allows close collaboration between players working on each puzzle.  And so the players solved it in less than ten days.  The credit goes to a team of volunteers who work on each structure independently and then share their results (and insights) with the rest of the team to continue with.  In this case a key insight on the looping structure was made by one member with another following up by incorporating it into another near-solution of their own.  And that's when it all came together.

All this goes to show not just the power of citizen science, but also the importance of using different techniques and the power of individuals working together on a problem.  No one project or volunteer ever identified the structure.  But two projects, the research group, thousands of volunteer computers, and a devoted team of creative game-players, all came together with the answer.

But enough of my take on the article.  Read the article or head straight to the scientific paper itself.  I think you'll find them both very intriguing.


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