Say what you like about video game culture and the internet, but don't say we can't gang together and do incredible things. When Scientists from the University of Washington were close to giving up on a ten year old puzzle that may hold part of the key to curing AIDS, their last resort was video games and the gamers who play them.
The problem is a deeply scientific one, which I am far from qualified to explain, but I'll do my best to summarise. The issue was with the M-PMV — a retroviral protein with an extremely complicated structure. Because of its structure there are millions upon millions of multiple ways in which it could possibly fold, making it extremely difficult to find its chemical key and, hence, its precise structure.
The solution came when the scientists sent a virtual 3D model of the protein to Foldit an online game which 'solves puzzles for science'. Foldit is a game where players help scientists with one of the major issues that come with studying proteins: the way in which they fold. Playing the game doesn't require a scientific background, just spatial awareness.
Foldit is a game that allows its players to collaborate and after 10 days working on the protein in the context of the game, Foldit players had solved a problem scientists had been trying to work out for 10 years. In that short time period players had discovered the optimum way in which to fold the protein, meaning scientists are now aware of the most efficient way to maintain it. They have a better understanding of the enzyme and, consequently, have a better idea of how to attack it.
To be perfectly honest, I have a minimal understanding of how this whole thing works, or even what it means in terms of finding a cure for AIDS, but it seems like great news regardless! The Scientists at the University of Washington are heralding it as a major breakthrough — a breakthrough that wouldn't have been possible with a video game and the people who play them.
Gamers solve decade old HIV puzzle in ten days [ZME Science]
UPDATE: I've been quietly informed that this story is actually quite old! But I've decided to keep it on the site because it's interesting and people are already talking about it! My apologies.