Gather ’round everybody, because I’ve got some excellent news!
You do not have to be a scientist to be better at science than a computer whose job it is to do science.
You – yes, you – are better at recognizing spatial relationships than computer programs whose job
it is to recognize spatial relationships.
And, uh, you know who’s even better than normal people at this stuff?
Okay, uh, get out your phone real quick, uh, I’m going to dictate a text message to your mom.
Dear mom, video games are too contributing to the wellbeing of society.
You were wrong. Your adoring child, and then you can put your name.
Because gamers are actually using their mad Super Mario Brothers Wii skills to recognize patterns in nature
and to crack the codes of microscopic matter.
Case in point!
There’s this organization called Foldit that puts gamers to work figuring out how proteins fold up into their most
stable and most useful states.
So you’ve probably hear of proteins, but usually in a dietary context, as just like one of the things that we eat
in the form of soy or cow, depending on your preference, but proteins are basically the stuff that makes us work.
Proteins do tons of different jobs; they will, for example, help me digest, uh, this hot pocket.
Also the proteins! They’ll–they’ll digest the proteins in this hot pocket.
It’s just meta.
You may be noticing that I–we build in lunch to my scripts.
So some proteins help break down this hot pocket that I’m eating into useful energy, some of them make up my
fingernails, and some of them help the buts of fireflies glow.
But proteins are actually really extremely complicated structures; they’re made up of long chains of amino
acids, and for the most part, it’s those amino acids that define what their shape is going to be.
But proteins don’t exist as long chains.
As soon as they’re formed, they fold up into themselves, into mysterious shapes.
They fold up for stability, but the way that they fold defines how they operate and what they do.
And it’s really tough to figure out how a protein is going to fold up, and–and so we spend a lot of money and time
trying to figure this out, one, by having computers do it, two, by actually trying to look at the protein while it’s
functioning to see if we can actually see its shape – which, turns out, it’s very hard to do – because
understanding how a protein folds up is key to understanding how that protein works, and if it’s a
disease protein, it’s a key to understanding how to stop that protein.
So scientists have been developing computer programs for years that try and figure out how proteins fold up in
their most stable states, but it turns out computers are just bad at that kind of stuff, and people are really
good at it, especially people who have, uh, developed their spatial reasoning skills through hours and hours of
video game playing.
And so the organization Foldit figured out that the best solution to this problem was to turn protein folding into
a video game.
Foldit is specifically looking into proteins and disease-causing organisms like viruses and bacterium, because
in order to stop a protein you have to know how it works, and you have to have its structure before you can know
how it works.
In the video game, gamers play competitively to see who can fold the protein into the most stable state, and
they’re kicking ass at it.
So for instance, there’s this age-related enzyme that scientists have been trying to figure out the structure of
for about a decade.
When all the normal computational methods for unlocking the structure of the enzyme failed, they gave
it to Foldit gamers to figure out.
And it took them about three weeks to figure it out.
Scientists have since been able to completely determine the structure of the protein, and they now think that they
understand enough about it to actually start developing drugs to turn it off.
In the meantime, the paper that was published describing these findings listed the scientists and the
gamers as co-authors, and that’s pretty freaking cool.
Humanity, for all of my hours and hours of video game playing, I say to you, you’re welcome.
If you want to download Foldit and try your hand at helping make the world better through video game
playing, there’s a link in the description.
There’s also links to more articles about this wonderful advance and the use of video games to make the world
a better place.
If you have suggestions for stuff we should talk about or questions, you can see us on Facebook and Twitter,
Facebook and Twitter or Twitter and Facebook, I don’t know, but they’re over there, and you can find us, you can
also always find us in the comments of youtube videos, uh, where we will be answering questions and, uh,
seeing how you’re doing.