University of Washington researchers are harnessing the power of online gaming to crack the code of the flu virus.
Foldit.com is the site where experts from UW, the government, Microsoft and other organizations are offering the free games.
Players watch for patterns and put together puzzles, with the pieces representing the structure of cellular proteins. Matching patterns discovered by players are then tested by researchers for their potential use in synthetic proteins that would be use to block the flu virus.
"We test them in the laboratory to see if they block the common flu virus, and those that do block the flu virus can then be developed as potential drugs," said UW researcher David Baker.
No science degree is required. It's even preferred that players don't know a lot about molecular biology.
"What's more amazing is that people who don't know computer science or chemistry are actually the best at this," said UW's Zoran Popovic, Ph.D.
Still, trial and error is par for the process.
The feedback we get from the players, it lets us change certain paremeters and then give it back to them until we get it quite right," said graduate student Aaron Chevalier.
One researcher, Dun-yu Hsiao is developing an Xbox Kinect version of the game, making it even more interactive.
Foldit's website offers tutorials to help visitors learn how to play. Individual games are available for only a couple of weeks at a time.