Games have a rather mixed public image, depending on who you ask. While many see it as useless pastimes or even bad influences, some consider these interactive activities as a form of art or medium for education. Few, however, probably expect games to save lives, let alone find the cure that will save lives. Yet that is exactly what the University of Washington’s game is trying to do, calling upon the creative brain cells of gamers to discover the protein structure that will stop the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus.
On the one hand, protein folding seems to be tedious enough that Stanford created Folding@home, a program that practically used the collective power of PlayStation 3 consoles for that purpose. On the other hand, it may also be a challenging puzzle game, which is the idea behind University of Washington’s Foldit, a game that was launched way back in 2008.
Protein folding, however, might also be the key to fighting the dreaded virus that currently grips the world. The COVID-19 apparently has protein spikes on its surface that binds tightly to receptor proteins on the surface of human cells, causing the deadly infection. Researchers have recently learned how that binding works and now the challenge is to find a way to stop that from happening.
One possible fix is to create a protein structure that binds to the coronavirus’ spikes, rendering it unable to bind to human cells anymore. That structure is pretty much the result of this protein folding puzzle that has seemingly caught the attention of gamers, enough to cause some heavy traffic on the game’s servers.
University researchers also discovered that human players are just as effective as computers in finding solutions but the COVID-19 presents a new problem that will surely challenge players. Foldit developers also assure that solutions gathered from the game will be treated like any scientific experiment and will be thoroughly tested in labs. It may be a game on the surface but, with everything that’s at stake, it’s also a serious matter at the same time.