Need a break? A computer game might do the trick — and if researchers at the University of California at Davis have anything to do with it, your leisurely clicking could yield a major scientific breakthrough. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 4.5 billion people in developing countries are exposed to aflatoxin, a fungal toxin that contaminates crops, every year.
Scientists think enzymes might one day be used to neutralize aflatoxin. Computers could be dedicated to tackling the problem, but the effort takes a huge amount of processing power.
Instead, researchers want you to help by playing a Tetris-like computer game.
UC Davis, Mars Inc., the University of Washington, Northeastern University and Thermo Fisher Scientific have launched a crowdsourcing project aimed at unlocking ways to neutralize aflatoxin. It's more fun than you might think. To participate, you simply play a computer game called Foldit. Players tinker with 3-D puzzles that mimic the shapes of proteins — in this case, enzymes that may one day be used to destroy aflatoxin.
The puzzles are competitive, and they're so immersive that it's easy to forget that you're helping scientists understand protein structures. Researchers use the crowd's solutions to each puzzle to develop insights into how proteins, which are made of amino acid chains, fold up to become specific molecules.
In this case, scientists have identified some enzymes that may neutralize aflatoxin, and they're hoping that players will find ways to redesign those enzymes beneficially. Players will then redesign the enzymes through their puzzles.
Foldit has already been credited with scientific discoveries, such as helping figure out the structure of an enzyme that helps HIV spread. Perhaps the same will be said for this round of play.
If the game does yield insight into aflatoxin-fighting enzymes, the effort could help solve a massive health problem. It's thought that aflatoxin is responsible for 90,000 cases of liver cancer a year, with people in certain developing countries particularly susceptible.
Want to play? Head to fold.it to get going.