An AIDS mystery that has puzzled scientists for years has been solved by a group of gamers using an online game called "Foldit." It took them three weeks to find the answer.
The problem was to find the structure of a retrovirus called M-PMV. That is important because the M-PMV retrovirus lets the HIV-1 virus replicate.
The team of players used "Foldit" to create a model of the retrovirus that was good enough to let scientists see the structure.
These were ordinary gamers, not scientists. How were they able to find a way to do something that the researchers have not been able to do over all these years?
In an article at TechWorldNews, analyst Charles King suggests that:
"'Foldit' is a game that attracts the competitive sort of gamer who likes puzzles, and this seems to be the type of puzzle where intuition and the natural ingrained ability of the human mind to solve three-dimensional problems exceeds the ability of computers to do so."
He adds that researchers often go into projects with certain ideas and preconceptions that gamers do not.
In other words, gamers are able to think in new ways. They do not assume that certain things will work and certain things will not. They are willing to try new ideas and see what happens. Researchers learn to do things in certain ways, and that if they do not do them that way, they probably will not successful.
The team used special software available in the "Foldit" program to solve a puzzle based on creating the retrovirus structure in 3D. The whole project is an example of an exciting new approach to scientific research that lets ordinary people take part in research, known as "distributed" or "crowd-sourced" science. The approach shows that sometimes the ability to think clearly and take chances is more powerful than years of education when it comes to finding answers.
People have come a long way from the image of online game players as social losers and are on the way to realizing that these are smart, competitive, original thinkers who have a lot to offer to the world in many ways.