Foldit, a puzzle game designed by scientists to get laypeople involved in solving biology research problems, has been making headlines for years. The game focuses on protein folding, the process by which these essential biochemicals curl up into shapes that let them catalyze life-sustaining chemical reactions inside our cells. The way proteins fold depends on thermodynamic rules that are very time-consuming to calculate out by brute force, because there are many ways to fold them but only one configuration that’s correct. But by coding these basic rules into a game, and presenting the proteins as Rubik’s-Cube-like objects to fiddle with, crowdsourced players can find correct solutions faster merely by using their intuitions. Here’s what the game looks like in action:
Now Foldit players have achieved a new feat: not just finding the optimal folded structure of a protein that already exists, but redesigning a protein to actually work better than it did before. According to Nature News, this is “a more open-ended problem.” Foldit players were able to design an enzyme, a protein that catalyzes biochemical reactions, that was 18 times more effective than its original version. The research appears in Nature Biotechnology.
This may all sound pretty technical so far, but the impact is profound. It’s as if a mob of amateurs who knew nothing about cars collectively redesigned a Formula One engine to make it go 18 times faster. “I worked for two years to make these enzymes better and I couldn’t do it,” one of the researchers told Nature News. “Foldit players were able to make a large jump in structural space and I still don’t fully understand how they did it.” As Neo might say: Whoa.
The key to this success isn’t just scale–although with players generating nearly 200,000 enzyme designs for the researchers to test, that certainly helped. The real key is the gaming interface itself, which encourages players to try out designs that would be impractical in nature or too expensive in the lab. By manipulating the intuitive, cartoon-like shapes on their screens without a need to mind or even understand the “reality” of what they represent, players “can explore things that look crazy,” another researcher told Nature News. And like innovation in any other space, the crazy stuff is often what breaks through to make progress on previously intractable problems.
Foldit’s ability to harness the “beginner’s mind,” untrammeled by assumptions about what is or isn’t possible or worthwhile, and apply it to problems that require PhD training even to fully understand, is a revolutionary design feat. It proves that this kind of gamified collective intuition can not only reverse-engineer tough computational problems, but generate creative solutions to open-ended engineering “briefs” as well. For their next trick, Foldit players are working to optimize the performance of protein inhibitors that combat the 1918 flu virus that killed millions and might parallel another flu pandemic. What would a Foldit for sustainable energy look like? Gamification can’t solve everything, but when it’s matched with good design to the right kind of specific problem, it may be more effective than we think.