Foldit Gamers Solve AIDS Puzzle That Baffled Scientists for a Decade

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How amazing is this: Gamers playing a protein-folding game called Foldit have helped unlock the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme that the scientific community had been unable to unlock for a decade.

The solution represents a significant step forward in the quest to cure retroviral diseases like AIDS. AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, severely compromises the body’s cellular immunity, making sufferers dramatically less resistant to infection. It’s considered a global pandemic, infecting more than 33 million people worldwide, with nearly 3 million estimated to become infected and 2 million actually dying from it annually.

To date, there is no cure, but we may be a trifle closer, thanks to a freebie science-angled computer game.

(PHOTOS: World AIDS Day 2010: The Prevention of HIV Transmission in Zimbabwe)

You know Foldit? As in The “solve puzzles for science” crowdsourcing experiment that encourages gamers to fiddle with proteins (and link amino acids) in an attempt to come up with their optimal “folded” states? Think 3-D tinker toys, except the solutions here could actually save lives.

In this case, it sounds like the enzyme, a Mason-Pfizer monkey virus retroviral protease, was modeled by gamers in just three weeks. The discovery will reportedly help researchers in their quest to treat retroviral conditions like HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), which can lead to AIDS.

According to the Foldit blog:

This is the second Nature paper we published with Foldit discoveries. This is [a] truly amazing accomplishment. All Foldit players should be proud.

And that’s not all — the game is apparently on the verge of several additional breakthroughs:

We also have two more in the pipeline: one of the algorithmic discoveries in Foldit recipes, and a brand-new synthetic protein discovered primarily due to the insight of Foldit protein design. Stay tuned.

You can read the full paper, co-published with Nature, here (PDF).

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Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.