Who would have thought that a video game could identify potential treatments for COVID-19? Researchers from the University of Washington Protein Design Institute I certainly thought so, and so far the game has produced 99 chances to win.
Foldit fans are finding ways to twist virtual protein structures into all sorts of contortions. Some of these contortions turn out to have therapeutic value, which can increase a player’s in-game score. And that may have real-world implications for fighting the coronavirus.
At the cellular level, protein structures can trigger biological processes or act as keys to unlock locks that protect cells from damage. For example, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, known as SARS-Cov-2, has a spike-like protein structure that is uniquely shaped to unlock a cell’s defenses and get inside. to do his dirty work.
Once the researchers mapped the shape of the virus, the Institute for Protein Design issued a challenge to Foldit players. They were tasked with bending virtual proteins into shapes that could lock onto the coronavirus skeleton key and erase it, rendering it useless for cellular tampering.
Thousands of designs were submitted and scored over three rounds of competition. Institute researchers have now selected 99 models, 33 from each cycle, which will be turned into real-world proteins called binders to be tested as antiviral agents.
“It will be a few more weeks before the genes come in and we can start experiments on Foldit designs,” Brian Koepnick, a UW biochemist who focuses on Foldit, tells players in a blog post. “In the meantime, we will continue to work on designing better binders in Foldit.”
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In a previous blog postKoepnick warned players that synthetic proteins don’t always perform as well in the real world as they do in Foldit’s computer-generated chemistry lab.
“The design of protein binders is a very difficult problem – one at the cutting edge of computational biology – and there are other difficult physical factors to consider,” he wrote. “Even if our metrics look good on paper or on computer, only lab tests will tell us if these design proteins actually bend and bind to the target.”
But if the institute can turn one of the 99 designs into a usable drug that can stop the coronavirus in its tracks, Foldit players won’t be the only winners.
To participate in the game, go to Foldit website, download the software and follow the instructions. Once you have familiarized yourself with the game by playing the tutorials, watch this 49 minute video for tips on solving coronavirus puzzles.
Update for 11:35 p.m. PT on April 1: We have updated some outdated figures regarding the number of registered Foldit players.