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Gamers Help Solve AIDS Protein Mystery

Players of Foldit game solve retrovirus protein structure

1 min read
Gamers Help Solve AIDS Protein Mystery

Even with advanced technologies, such as nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, deciphering protein structures can be difficult. A few years ago, researchers at the University of Washington decided to enlist the help of citizen scientists by turning the structure discovery process into a spatial reasoning game. The game, called Foldit, became an international phenomenon, attracting thousands of players.

The University of Washington team was so impressed by the Foldit players' performance that they presented them with an AIDS-related protein that had stumped researchers for years. The players, working together in online teams, figured out the structure of the protein in a matter of weeks. The results were published this week as a brief communication in Nature Structure & Molecular Biology. The researchers believe that it's the first instance of online gamers solving a longstanding scientific problem.

It's a big victory for proponents of citizen science, but it's also important to realize that this kind of success rarely happens automatically. It has taken continuous tinkering to optimize the game so that players without any background in biochemistry can use it effectively. Without these tweaks, Foldit might have been a fun game, but it probably wouldn't have contributed to science in the same way.

Image, Foldit, University of Washington

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Why Functional Programming Should Be the Future of Software Development

It’s hard to learn, but your code will produce fewer nasty surprises

11 min read
A plate of spaghetti made from code
Shira Inbar

You’d expectthe longest and most costly phase in the lifecycle of a software product to be the initial development of the system, when all those great features are first imagined and then created. In fact, the hardest part comes later, during the maintenance phase. That’s when programmers pay the price for the shortcuts they took during development.

So why did they take shortcuts? Maybe they didn’t realize that they were cutting any corners. Only when their code was deployed and exercised by a lot of users did its hidden flaws come to light. And maybe the developers were rushed. Time-to-market pressures would almost guarantee that their software will contain more bugs than it would otherwise.

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