One of the most significant issues in biophysics is said to be the “Protein folding problem.” Understanding how proteins fold and behave is a big key in furthering modern research on a number of fronts. (see http://www.ram.org/research/pfp.html for a basic overview) The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been involved in finding new ways to attack research problems. One particular method has involved turning a research problem into a game and inviting large numbers of people to participate in working out solutions.
On the heels of some success using this arrangement, DARPA has initiated a new project involving protein folding as it applies to finding more effective treatments for blood sepsis (infection). To that end, they have created a 3-D puzzle game. In this case, the puzzles are protein forms that need to be manipulated and arranged into a proper form. While I have yet to develop sufficient background on the subject to know exactly what I am doing while playing the game, such in depth knowledge in not necessary. On previous projects, some with no background in the particular field ended up making fantastic contributions.
In the past, large research problems have used distributed networking and computation to gather a large number of volunteer who would allow their home computers to run programs in the background as a part of “one large computer.” The SETI program is an example of a group that has used this approach. You would sign up to help, download a program, and when you were not using your program allow your computer to connect and become part of the computational power of the project. Previous research into protein folding has taken this approach as well.
The difference here is that, rather than volunteering your computer, you are volunteering your problem solving skills. Rather than distributed computing, it becomes distributed thinking or problem solving. If you have a computer, an internet connection, and a little time to play a game, you can directly help with and impact critical research that going to be a key in bettering our understanding of disease and developing future treatments for so many conditions. While the focus of this project is specifically on sepsis, the applications of better understanding some part of protein folding are broad.
Check it out! If you don’t mind downloading and playing the game, give it a try. How often is playing a game NOT wasted time?
Outside article about the game: http://defensetech.org/2012/08/31/darpa-asks-gamers-to-cure-blood-disease-seen-on-battlefield/#more-18317
Official game site: http://fold.it/portal/info/science