Game on: gamers beat scientists at modelling proteins

Stand back scientists: gamers have beaten highly qualified crystallographers, undergraduates and even computer algorithms at creating an accurate model on a protein, based on its biochemical data.


A team of scientists in America pitted the participants of the study against each other. In one corner, two highly trained crystallographers, in another, 61 undergraduate students using computer modelling programs, in the third, two computer algorithms, and in the last corner, 469 gamers playing a game called Foldit.

All they had to do was create a model of the protein YPL067C by interpreting the electron density maps they were given. As is common in scientific research, the undergraduates and the crystallographers all worked independently. That may be what gave the gamers the edge – while one online player contributed the majority of the ‘moves’ towards the creation of the model, others tweaked and refined the structure.

This collaborative approach was found to work best, and shows that what is considered a labour intensive and time consuming process in science could in fact be crowd sourced. The researchers call the gamers ‘citizen scientists’, and say that anyone with a 3D mentality could have a huge impact on the field.

Not only that, but this style of gaming could help to get more people interested in science, and teach scientific concepts. Playing the game is said to teach students about protein modelling a lot better than simply having the concepts drilled into them, by making the process more fun and engaging. The gamers might even have found a new type of protein – one that is responsible for plaque formation. Studying this protein might lead to a better understanding of Alzheimer’s.

This isn’t the first time that scientists have considered using the general public to help with their research. Not only does involving the public increase the publicity of science and research, but it provides the researchers with a big team, which can observe much more detail than they can on their own. For example, in April 2016, the public was asked to keep an eye on a group of penguins through 75 cameras installed in Antarctica, to see how climate change was affecting them, and in August 4,500 citizen scientists analysed weather data to see if a partial eclipse had had any effect on the weather.

Next, the researchers say that they will incorporate the gamers’ tips and tricks into the software that the scientists were using. Understanding how more proteins work is important, since every function of the body uses them. Man-made proteins may even one say solve health, environmental and energy problems.


Scott HorowitzBrian KoepnickRaoul MartinAgnes TymienieckiAmanda A. WinburnSeth CooperJeff FlattenDavid S. RogawskiNicole M. Koropatkin, Tsinatkeab T. HailuNeha JainPhilipp KoldeweyLogan S. AhlstromMatthew R. ChapmanAndrew P. Sikkema, Meredith A. SkibaFinn P. MaloneyFelix R. M. Beinlich, Foldit PlayersUniversity of Michigan studentsZoran PopovićDavid BakerFiras Khatib & James C. A. Bardwell, Nature Communications 7, article 12549, Determining crystal structures through crowdsourcing and coursework’, (accessed 27/09/2016)

Josh Hrala, Science Alert, 16th September 2016, ‘Gamers just outdid scientists in a race to figure out a protein’s shape’, (accessed 27/09/2016)

Scicasts, 22nd September 2016, ‘Video Gamers Beat Pros in Protein-Folding Contest’, (accessed 27/09/2016)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s