Today's issue of Nature contains a paper with a rather unusual author list. Read past the standard collection of academics, and the final author credited is... an online gaming community.
Scientists have turned to games for a variety of reasons, having studied virtual epidemics and tracked online communities and behavior, or simply used games to drum up excitement for the science. But this may be the first time that the gamers played an active role in producing the results, having solved problems in protein structure through the Foldit game.
According to a news feature on Foldit, the project arose from an earlier distributed computing effort called Rosetta@home. That project used what has become the standard approach for home-based scientific work: a screensaver that provided a graphical frontend to a program that uses spare processor time to solve weighty scientific problems. For Rosetta, that problem was the task of figuring out how proteins, which are composed of a chain of chemicals called amino acids, adopt their final, three-dimensional shape.
This is typically an energy minimization problem. Proteins tend to form structures that keep hydrophobic parts buried internally, away from the water they're dissolved in. They also form bridges between neighboring sections by hydrogen bonds and charge interactions. Maximize these sorts of interactions and you minimize the energy involved.