Coronavirus inspires University of Washington to create protein-folding puzzle game

To address the coronavirus, the University of Washington has launched a puzzle game that challenges you to build a protein that could stop COVID-19 (the virus’s official name) from attacking human cells.

The game is available on Foldit, a website that the Center for Game Science created. Foldit uses crowdsourcing from more than 200,000 registered players to conduct protein research. It’s an example of citizen science in action, as well as another justification for playing a game.

If the game results in promising ideas for antiviral proteins, the results will face tests from scientists. The school’s Institute for Protein Design in Seattle could manufacture the proteins if needed. People who are good at spatial reasoning skills — through hours of playing video games — are good at solving some of these puzzles. To stop a coronavirus protein, you have to now what it looks like and how it works and what protein can counter it.

The coronavirus has killed more than 3,100 people and infected more than 92,000 people to date. The outbreak started in China, but it has spread around the world to dozens of countries, and it is responsible for a handful of deaths in Washington. Researchers have turned to games before for big projects, such as [email protected]’s use of PlayStation consoles to lend computing power to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Big tech conferences, including Mobile World Congress, the Game Developers Conference, Facebook’s F8, and a number of other events, have been canceled in the wake of the coronavirus breakout. Other nations, such as Japan, have gone so far as to cancel everyday activities such as schools. The top solvers are displayed on a leaderboard with scores.

Here’s some details:

Coronaviruses display a “spike” protein on their surface, which binds tightly to a receptor protein found on the surface of human cells. Once the coronavirus spike binds to the human receptor, the virus can infect the human cell and replicate. 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!

In this puzzle, players are presented with the binding site of the coronavirus spike protein. The backbone and most of the sidechains are completely frozen, except for sidechains at the binding site, where the spike protein normally interacts with the human receptor protein. Players can design a new protein that binds to these sidechains, blocking interactions with the human receptor. In order to bind the coronavirus target, designs will need to make lots of contacts and H-bonds with the spike protein at this binding site. But designs will also need to have lots of secondary structure (helices or sheets) and a large core, so that they fold up correctly! See the puzzle comments for Objective details.

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