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The Video Game Researchers Are Using To Battle Coronavirus

Foldit is a computer game that launched back in 2008. It simulates protein folding, which is described by Science Daily as "the process by which a protein structure assumes its functional shape or conformation." In other words, the goal of this game is to manipulate proteins in such a way that they work the way they're meant to.


Foldit was designed to be a research tool, utilizing players from all around the world to hopefully find cures and vaccines for diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's. Now, the researchers and designers behind Foldit have turned their attention to the current coronavirus outbreak. 

Foldit is encouraging fans of the game to pitch in and help to find a vaccine for the current coronavirus outbreak. While researchers have recently figured out how the coronavirus works, they have yet to come up with a way to prevent it entirely. That's where Foldit's latest puzzle comes in. 

As explained by the puzzle's official page, "Coronaviruses display a 'spike' protein on their surface, which binds tightly to a receptor protein found on the surface of human cells. In recent weeks, researchers have determined the structure of the 2019 coronavirus spike protein and how it binds to human receptors. If we can design a protein that binds to this coronavirus spike protein, it could be used to block the interaction with human cells and halt infection!"


This puzzle tasks players with designing antivirus proteins that can help combat the coronavirus. The applications for this puzzle go far beyond in-game accomplishments and bragging rights for the player who bests the virus. According to the official Foldit Twitter account, they will be closely monitoring player progress on this puzzle. As Foldit's team tweeted, "The most promising solutions will be manufactured & tested at the Institute for Protein Design ... in Seattle."

It seems as though fans of the game have taken to this concept almost immediately. The response to the addition of this new puzzle has been rather positive. User comments on the original post for the puzzle are encouraging players to share their strategies and findings with one another. Some players are arranging scheduled chats to discuss the puzzle with others.

The coronavirus outbreak has had impacts on several different industries, with video games being no different. Several esports tournaments and events have been postponed or canceled due to the outbreak and concern for the safety of attendees. Manufacturing on the Nintendo Switch has also come to a halt in Nintendo's plants based in China.

Interestingly, this is far from the first time the video game world has collided with coronavirus research. Just last month, it was reported that sales of the game Plague Inc. had skyrocketed in China, due to the concern surrounding the various unknowns of the virus. Plague Inc. allows players to simulate a global pandemic, showing them the time it would take to spread a particular sickness. Many people were hoping to use Plague Inc. to get a feel for how quickly the coronavirus could spread to other parts of the world. 


Unfortunately for those who were curious enough to download Plague Inc. for this purpose, they were swiftly corrected by the developers of the game. Though Plague Inc. was designed to be as realistic and scientifically accurate as possible, using extensive research done in conjunction with actual disease centers, it was not meant to be used as a scientific model. Plague Inc. was recently banned in China, which some believe may have been a response to the hysteria surrounding the outbreak.

The response to the folks playing Foldit has been quite different. For one, while use of Plague Inc. to get a feel for the coronavirus' dangerous potential was discouraged by both the game's original developers and members of the medical community, there seems to be some real hope here that the gamers can do some good here. In essence, there's a possibility that the search for a genuine coronavirus vaccine can be crowdsourced. The general thought behind Foldit seems to be that if we put enough heads together, then maybe these problems can be resolved. Wouldn't that be incredible?

It's not entirely out of the question for this to work. In fact, putting human minds together has generally been the most effective form of research into protein folding. As explained by a Reddit user, "Exact shape is very important to proteins but hard to work out as 1 protein chain has many possiblities. You can think of it like origami ... The reason they don't use computers for this is because they are still really bad with shape. Human brains are still the best tool we have for thinking our way around images and objects."