Foldit: Playing a Game While Solving Protein Structures *
|Areas of Science||
|Time Required||Long (2-4 weeks)|
|Prerequisites||Understanding of what proteins are.|
|Material Availability||Readily available|
|Cost||Very Low (under $20)|
AbstractUnlocking the three-dimensional structure of a protein is crucial to help scientists understand how it functions in our bodies and how it can cause devastating diseases if it becomes disrupted or interacts in the wrong way. However, figuring out the structure of a protein in three-dimensional space can be very challenging. Proteins are the functional units of our cells, and every protein is made up of a long chain of amino acids. Amino acids come in different shapes and sizes, and they have different electrical charges. All of these aspects affect how the amino acids interact with each other. These many intricate interactions determine the structure of the overall protein. Consequently, although scientists may know the amino acid sequence of a certain protein, it takes a lot more work to figure out how this chain of amino acids comes together to form the three-dimensional shape of the protein itself, which is called the tertiary structure of the protein.
Figuring out the tertiary structure of a protein is often done using powerful computer programs, such as Foldit. In Foldit, an interactive computer game, users can investigate how the amino acids in a protein prefer to interact with each other, and the space around them, in specific ways that lead to an overall stable protein structure. Users compete with each other to create the most stable tertiary structures for a given protein, or the best "solution." In this way, in September of 2011 users of Foldit were actually able to solve the structure of an enzyme critical for causing AIDS, specifically an enzyme that is important for the maturation and proliferating of the virus. Enzymes like this one are the focus for anti-viral drug efforts. Users solved the enzyme's structure within three weeks, while it had puzzled scientists for a decade. You can read more about this discovery in the citation below. Hopefully Foldit users will continue to help with medical breakthroughs along these lines.
So what makes one "solution" better than another "solution"? In this science project, you will investigate how one proposed tertiary structure for a protein is more or less stable than another proposed tertiary structure. For this science project, after downloading the Foldit game and creating a user account, we recommend that you complete all, or at least most, of the 32 "Intro Puzzles." This will give you a good idea of the strategy used to solve more complex puzzles. You can then explore the "Science Puzzles" and "Contests" (Note: You need to manually download the latter inside the game).
For the "Science Puzzles" for which the protein structure is known, try to match your solution to the "Guide" (the known protein structure). For the harder "Science Puzzles" and all of the "Contests," you can join a Foldit Group to share "Solutions" with other people. Anyone can make a group, or you can ask to join a group on the in-game chat. You could even look online for the solved structure of a similar protein, such as by searching the RCSB Protein Data Bank. When solving protein structures and comparing solutions, think about the following:
- How well are the hydrophobic residues hidden within the protein? Are there many yellow "exposeds"?
- How compact is the structure? Are there a lot of "voids"?
- Are there many stable hydrogen bonds? Are any anti-parallel beta sheets stabilized with hydrogen bonds?
- Are all the sidechains in good positions?
Even if you're new to Foldit, by thinking about these questions and having some patience you'll be folding proteins like a pro in no time!
Teisha Rowland, PhD, Science Buddies
Cite This PageGeneral citation information is provided here. Be sure to check the formatting, including capitalization, for the method you are using and update your citation, as needed.
Last edit date: 2018-05-05
To do this science project, you will need to download the Foldit program, which you can find here:
- Foldit: Solve Puzzles for Science. (n.d.). Retrieved September 28, 2011, from http://fold.it/
Here are a few websites that will help you start gathering information about Foldit, how to use it to solve protein structures, and more on protein structures:
- Foldit: Solve Puzzles for Science. (n.d.). The Science Behind Foldit. Retrieved September 28, 2011, from http://fold.it/portal/info/science
- Foldit: Solve Puzzles for Science. (n.d.). Top Groups. Retrieved September 30, 2011, from http://fold.it/portal/groups
- Foldit Wiki. (n.d.). Strategy. Retrieved September 30, 2011, from http://foldit.wikia.com/wiki/Strategy
- NCBI. (n.d.). Section 3.1 Hierarchical Structure of Proteins. Retrieved October 5, 2011, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK21581/
- RCSB Protein Data Bank. (n.d.). Biological Macromolecular Resource. Retrieved September 14, 2011, from http://www.rcsb.org/pdb
Here you can read about the recent medical breakthrough of solving an HIV enzyme structure using Foldit:
- Coren, M. J. and Fast Company. (2011, September 20). Foldit Gamers Solve Riddle of HIV Enzyme within 3 Weeks. Scientific American. Retrieved September 22, 2011, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/foldit-gamers-solve-riddle/
- Khatib, F. et al. (2011, September 18). Crystal structure of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players. Nature Structural & Molecular Biology. Retrieved September 22, 2011, from https://www.nature.com/articles/nsmb.2119
Interested in the science behind viral outbreaks? Check out Zika Virus.
News Feed on This Topic
Ask an ExpertThe Ask an Expert Forum is intended to be a place where students can go to find answers to science questions that they have been unable to find using other resources. If you have specific questions about your science fair project or science fair, our team of volunteer scientists can help. Our Experts won't do the work for you, but they will make suggestions, offer guidance, and help you troubleshoot.
Ask an Expert
If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers:
BiochemistGrowing, aging, digesting—all of these are examples of chemical processes performed by living organisms. Biochemists study how these types of chemical actions happen in cells and tissues, and monitor what effects new substances, like food additives and medicines, have on living organisms. Read more
Biological TechnicianWhat do the sequencing of the human genome, the annual production of millions of units of life-saving vaccines, and the creation of new drought-tolerant rice varieties have in common? They were all accomplished through the hard work of biological technicians. Scientists may come up with the overarching plans, but the day-to-day labor behind biotechnology advances is often the work of skilled biological technicians. Read more
Biochemical EngineerA nice cool yogurt is the perfect snack. It comes in a variety of delicious flavors like peach, chocolate, and cherry and contains calcium, vitamins, and minerals that are good for you. Yogurt also contains live cultures that your body needs to maintain good health. How did all of those good things get into your yogurt? The answer is that a biochemical engineer helped to develop a recipe to make that yogurt a perfect snack for you. So many of the products that we use every day, from medicine and fertilizer to packaged foods, result from the hard work of a biochemical engineer. A biochemical engineer takes a recipe that has been formulated by a biologist or a chemist in the laboratory and develops it into a large-scale manufacturing process. Biochemical engineers design the manufacturing equipment that is required to convert raw materials into the products that you have at home, like cold tablets and packaged foods. If you are interested in applying your problem-solving skills to improving human lives, then you should definitely investigate this career. Read more
Bioinformatics ScientistThe human body can be viewed as a machine made up of complex processes. Scientists are working on figuring out how these processes work and on sequencing and correlating the sections of the genome that correspond to the individual processes. (The genome is an organism's complete set of genetic material.) In the course of doing so, they generate large amounts of data. So large, in fact, that to make sense of it, the data must be organized into databases and labeled. This is where bioinformatics scientists step in. They design databases and develop algorithms for processing and analyzing genomic and other biological information. These scientists work at the crossroads of biology and computer science. Read more
News Feed on This Topic
Looking for more science fun?
Try one of our science activities for quick, anytime science explorations. The perfect thing to liven up a rainy day, school vacation, or moment of boredom.Find an Activity
Explore Our Science Videos
Solubility Science - STEM Activity
Vibration & Sound: Make Sprinkles Dance
Make a Slushy! Yummy STEM Project