Foldit is a joint research project of the University of Washington‘s departments of Biochemistry and Computer Science and Engineering. The basic idea is to enlist members of the public to play an online protein-folding game. The data from the human players is added to a database that will help improve computer protein-folding algorithms. Humans are better at pattern-recognition, and it is hoped that the collective effort of the many humans who have been (and will be) enlisted will make significant contributions to the research effort.
This is from the Foldit FAQ page (there is a lot of information on the project at the site):
For protein structure prediction, the eventual goal is to have human folders work on proteins that do not have a known structure. This would require first attracting the attention of scientists and biotech companies and convincing them that the process is effective. Another goal is to take folding strategies that human players have come up with while playing the game, and automate these strategies to make protein-prediction software more effective. These two goals are more or less independent and either or both may happen.
The more interesting goal for Foldit, perhaps, is not in protein prediction but protein design. Designing new proteins may be more directly practical than protein prediction, as the problem you must solve as a protein designer is basically an engineering problem (protein engineering), whether you are trying to disable a virus or scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It’s also a relatively new field compared to protein prediction. There aren’t a lot of automated approaches to protein design, so Foldit’s human folders will have less competition from the machines.
It’s straightforward and quick to register and play the game; it took me only a few seconds to download the software and there is a nice step-by-step program that teaches one how to use it. There are versions available for Unix, Mac, and Windows.
Give it a try if you’re interested. One of the nice aspects of the game is the opportunity to collaborate with others. Sounds like fun!
Thanks to Mathew Menonkariyil for telling me about this worthy scientific research project.