Saturday, December 27, 2014

Biology, Puzzles, and the Hidden Potential of Online Gamers

For 15 years, Scientists at the University of Washington's Biochemistry department had been struggling to fully understand the enzyme structure for viruses such as HIV/AIDS. But even with the help of powerful computers, they were unable to create a working model.

Finally in 2011, they decided to take a new approach. Dr. Firas Khatib created a video game called Fold it.  The game requires players to figure out a protein structure, given certain parameters, tools and information that the scientists had figured out thus far. They put Fold it on line and challenged gamers to find the solution, hoping that human brains could do what computers could not: think intuitively and creatively in 3 dimensions. The puzzle was available on line for free, for a period of 3 weeks. 

The idea paid off. Gamers figured out the structure in just 10 days. 

In fact the gamers' solution allowed scientists to refine the model for a protein enzyme structure, which has contributed to research in anti-viral drug therapy, causes and cures for cancer and immune deficiencies and environmental work on bio-fuels.

“The ingenuity of game players,” Khatib said, “is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems."
I love the idea of looking outside one's own circle of influence to tap into new ideas (new viewpoints, if you will). Serious research scientists are always looking for new sources of information and ways to interpret data. 

Until the invention of the internet, there was no way to access such a large, diverse group of "thinkers" and ask them to work simultaneously on a single problem. Now we have a world full of strategists, puzzle solvers and curious minds, all with the potential to become virtual research assistants (or maybe test subjects). Who knows where the next break through will come from?

Title: Control
Technical Details: Finished size 18" x 18"
Depicts a close up view of an Xbox game controller
Hand dyed cotton and batik fabrics, cut and layered via raw-edge applique, sewn together using hand-guided machine stitching, with rayon and polyester thread


  1. Really well done! And I learned a lot too! Thanks, Kate

  2. I was not familiar with this project and really enjoyed reading about it. It always helps to have a fresh perspective to see overlooked possibilities. Love your interpretation of the X-box controller - well done! I have the advantage of having them strewn about my living room to help identify your subject matter….

    1. Thank you Martha! Yes, my kids recognized this right away. We usually have a couple of these on the floor and another in the charger. LOL

  3. Well, gamers… never thought about it! How fascinating! Could they manage to work out how to construct a wormhole we could travel through - in a folded space/time continuum? (Another idea from Interstellar…)

  4. Kate, happy New Year! I like your beautiful work and the story. It’s thought-provoking.