Foldit is a computer game that uses human ingenuity and “problem-solving intuition” to explore the behaviors of proteins. These proteins might be part of a disease or a potential cure for a disease and the game is a form of citizen science. One of Foldit’s Fall 2017 challenges tackles the toxic protein Aflatoxin, a food poison that can cause liver cancer and that affects more than 4 billion people around the world.
Proteins consist of a chain of amino acids (organic compounds made of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and hydrogen atoms). Proteins are hard at work in every one of the trillions of cells in our body. They play a role in numerous vital functions, like breaking down food into energy, moving nutrients through the blood and helping the brain to send signals throughout the body. Some proteins act as enzymes or catalysts, meaning that they speed up chemical reactions.
The amino acids in a protein are joined together like a line of people holding hands, the Foldit site tells us. Amino acids are categorized into 20 types and then into sub groups based on their chemical makeup and properties. Each protein folds up in a very specific manner and will fold in the exact same way every time. The shape a protein folds into is its most stable shape and is part of its inherent function; for example, “a protein that breaks down glucose so the cell can use the energy stored in the sugar will have a shape that recognizes the glucose and binds to it -- like a lock and key …”
Insulin is a well-known protein that is responsible for regulating the sugar levels in blood. Luciferase is a protein that you may not have heard the name of but that you are most likely familiar with; it catalyzes the chemical reaction that allows fireflies to light up at night.
Because proteins are part of many diseases, discovering how they fold up can help scientist learn how to combat them. As the Foldit team puts it, “The more we know about how certain proteins fold, the better new proteins we can design to combat the disease-related proteins and cure the diseases.” Even with the help of computers, discovering which of the many ways a protein might fold is very difficult, time consuming and expensive. That’s why Foldit exists.
So by playing Foldit, users can both help to uncover the folding structures of toxic proteins and can design new proteins that might prevent or cure diseases. By moving parts of a 3-D, interactive illustration of a protein in the game, players learn how to achieve higher-scoring folds. As the video from The Surg above explains, “top scoring protein folds are sent to scientists, who test them in the lab.” Previous players have created new proteins and helped scientist discover the structure of a protein central to virus replication.
Protein is a fun, engaging and meaningful activity that allows researchers to crowdsource the skills of both casual and avid gamers who want to contribute to the advancement of science. There are numerous puzzles, contests and groups on the site. If you play in the Aflatoxin challenge, you may be able to help scientists better understand this toxic protein and prevent people in the future from developing the liver cancer it is associated with.