In spite of leveraging the most advanced crystallographic technology, scientists working at the University of Washington kept encountering hurdles in deciphering a particular protein’s structure. As a last resort, they began an online competition, putting up many versions of possible molecular structures and asking online gamers to tweak them in the most energy efficient way. Shortly, a group called The Contenders made the breakthrough. In Nature, scientists lauded the discovery of the structure of a protein found in an AIDS-like monkey virus. That was the first instance where crowdsourcing had been used to solving a scientific problem. The protein shape had eluded the most accomplished in the scientific community for over a decade. The crowd bested crystallographers and computer algorithms specifically designed to assemble proteins within less than three weeks.
The development has brought to the fore the immense potential inherent in crowdsourcing—where large groups do tasks generally done by individuals. In the above example, online gamers applied spatial intelligence and critical reasoning to solve a problem that had traditionally been dealt by subject matter experts.
Feasibility of crowdsourcing for Aids research
Can the same technique be applied to cutting-edge research such as that dealing with a pandemic like Aids? No one can answer this question for sure, but there is definitely substantial possibility that there could be some kind of breakthrough as well-trained minds might not be able to think out of the box and therefore a solution eludes them.
While explaining the reasons for such a breakthrough by online gamers, Seth Cooper, lead designer as well as developer of Foldit, the site on which the breakthrough was made, said in an interview that the players’ lack of biochemistry backgrounds may have actually worked to their advantage. Ignorant of the conventional rules governing biochemistry, Foldit players had been able “to be really creative and come up with a lot of different interesting solutions.”
Any initiative to ‘crowdsource’ the process of discovering human genes that are important to HIV biology could offer unfathomable possibilities. Currently, there are several gene lists, which can give rise to more than 500 billion subsets. It is no more an individual task now. It would need a large number of people who are motivated not by professional vigor but also creativity and passion. Enthusiastic players could try out various permutations and combinations of gene sets and screens if presented in a fun format—as a game, as a fun activity. Any interesting results that they may encounter could be relayed to researchers and scientists working in the area.
“It goes on to show that somebody with a three-dimensional thought process, such as visualizers and gamers, can bring in fresh out-of-the-box thinking in areas that require lateral thinking. Such mental processes could definitely contribute to do something that was previously only entrusted to the scientific community. It will be disruptive but in a constructive way and help scientific progress in the long run,” said Shashank Dixit, CEO, Deskera, a global leader in cloud technology.
Crowdsourcing could prove to the disruptive force and the game changer that science had been waiting for since centuries.