University of Washington taps gamers to tackle Ebola

SEATTLE -- Inside test tubes and beakers at a University of Washington laboratory, researchers are looking for ways to end some of the world's worst diseases and virus.

Scientists have been trying to crack the code to Ebola for years, but they've recently started recruiting a unique ally in their fight against the deadly virus: video gamers.

"Gamers think differently than researchers," said UW professor of biochemistry David Baker.

At the Institute For Protein Design, UW biochemistry students are collaborating with gamers who play Foldit, an interactive, colorful online game developed by the University. It lets players tackle puzzles for science.

"Foldit players are very ingenious and intelligent," said graduate student Brian Koepnick. "They've developed algorithms that parallel our algorithms. In the lab we have post docs and experts developing new techniques in science and our Foldit playes are doing the same thing right alongside us."

The Ebola challenge encourages gamers to fold a protein into the best shape and position to stick to the Ebola protein. About 500 gamers from around the world participated in the first puzzle. Several came up with top-scoring solutions for blocking the virus's ability to infect humans. The results give researchers a good starting place for a drug design.

"Proteins can have many types of structures and a computer can't really survey all the possible structures. So gamers are coming up with new types of structures that have the right shape to stick to that spot of the virus," Baker said.

Researchers say teaming up with gamers now won't affect the current Ebola outbreak -- which has already killed more than 1,400 people -- but could lead to a long-term treatment.

"I think it's amazing that citizens can interact so directly with science now," said Koepnick, who is excited to have the public's help solving problems and offering what computers can't -- human intuition.

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