Science needs your help!


We all heard about Crowdsourcing, the popular business practice fostering innovation.  We know it is useful for ideating products that satisfy unmatched needs, or to vote for existing business ideas. Surprisingly it was applied to bimolecular design. Even more interestingly, participants were not scientists, but just game players.

Let’s make it clearer. Crowdsourcing is defined as “ a type of participative online activity in which an individual, an institution, a non-profit organization, or company proposes to a group of individuals of varying knowledge, heterogeneity, and number, via a flexible open call, the voluntary undertaking of a task” (1). What this definition says is that internal expertise can be triggered by the help of outside knowledge, more diverse even if less skilled. And maybe sometimes, outside brains can see the bigger picture better than experts. That’s what happened with Foldit.

foldit_1

One day David Baker, a leading protein scientist of the Washington University, thought that crowdsourcing could have helped him in his struggle with Protein Engineering. The understanding of proteins’ structures is of paramount importance for science, due to the vital tasks they perform: they facilitate biochemical reactions, they copy DNA, they help to recognize viruses. What is also important is to create new proteins, non existing in nature. By creating new sequences of amino-acids with functions needed yet still unmatched in nature, researchers could even help fighting HIV through vaccines.

However, this is not an easy task. That’s the where the idea of Baker comes from.

First, Baker created a complex computerized algorithm which invents proteins with the desired functions. However, most of the time computers create proteins which are not structurally feasible. Thus he asked Zoran Popovic (2) and his team to develop an online game, to ask for outside help.

Launching the game, science made an open call toward everyone. Through it, worldwide players can compete in creating feasible structures for newly ideated proteins. Interestingly, the game developers do not know what is the right solution. This means that players cannot get any hints, and that points are given not by the closeness to the solution: the winning protein is the most energy-efficient one.

The game is organized in different contests. Once a contest ends, scientists analyze and verify the best structures. Creation and decision are then two separate steps, belonging to different parties (3). The first version of the game was called Rosetta, and was released in 2005. Around 200,000 players downloaded it. Then it became Fold.it, and it is a success.

In 2011, the game players modeled an enzyme called M-PMV, which will help research to find a cure for AIDS (4). This enzyme, indeed, serves to hinder the progress of the virus in humans. The best part is that the participants were able to model this protein in just 3 weeks. An outstanding result. Even  more impressive if you think that it has been an headache for experienced scientists for 15 years. The success of this game tells us a lot about open innovation. This game not only provides fun: it is also a competition for Love and Glory (3).

Thanks to the smart participation architecture, this games successfully motivates the participants. Thus companies, hurry up: give worldwide brains a funny game and they will help you!

Wanna play? Click here: https://fold.it/portal/

Sources:

  1. Estelles Arolas, E., Gonzalez Ladron de Guerra, F., 2012. Towards an integrated crowdsourcing definition, Journal of Information Science 38 (2), 189-200.
  2. Bourzak K., 2008-08, Biologists enlist ondine gamers, MIT technology review: http://www.technologyreview.com/news/410098/biologists-enlist-online-gamers/
  3. Malone, T.W., R. Laubacher, and Chrysanthos Dellarocas. “The Collective Intelligence Genome.” MIT Sloan Management Review 51.3 (2010): 21-31.
  4. Praetorius D., 2011-09, Gamers decode AIDS protein that stumped researchers for 15 years in just 3 weeks, Huffington Post:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/19/aids-protein-decoded-gamers_n_970113.html
  5. Majchrzak, A., and A. Malhotra. “Towards an information systems perspective and research agenda on crowdsourcing for innovation.” Journal of Strategic Information Systems 22.4 (2013): 257-268.
  6. Koerth Baker, M., 2009-05,Wasting time for a good cause, Boingboing: http://boingboing.net/2009/05/03/wasting-time-for-a-g.html
  7. Marshall J., 2012-01, Online gamers achieve first crowd sourced redesign of protein, Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/victory-for-crowdsourced-biomolecule2/

Sara Di Perna

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