Players of the online protein-folding game Foldit solved the structure of a retrovirus enzyme - a problem that has eluded scientists for more than a decade.
Foldit enlists players all over the world to participate in an online game where they collaborate and compete to make the lowest-energy protein structures possible.
The class of enzyme - known as a "retroviral protease" - is pivotal in the way the AIDS virus develops and spreads. Research into drugs that could block these enzymes has been limited by lack of knowledge about its molecular structure.
"Following the failure of a wide range of attempts to solve the crystal structure of M-PMV retroviral protease by molecular replacement, we challenged players of the protein folding game Foldit to produce accurate models of the protein," said a report published in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.
"Remarkably, Foldit players were able to generate models of sufficient quality for successful molecular replacement and subsequent structure determination. The refined structure provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs."
The report claims that this is the first example of a scientific problem being solved through crowd-sourcing methods.
"These results indicate the potential for integrating video games into the real-world scientific process: the ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems."