Crowd-Sourced Science

29 Aug

Crowd-sourcing is becoming a powerful force. Enlisting hundreds of thousands of people to complete tiny sections of a larger task is so efficient, you might not even know you’re already participating. Every time you fill out a ‘reCAPTCHA’ box to verify that you’re not a spambot, you’re actually helping to digitise books for ever-expanding digital libraries. In just one day, 200 million ‘reCAPTCHA’ boxes are filled out, amounting to over 150,000 hours of work per day. Whenever you’re asked to type the squiggly words ‘basilisk dissuade’ before you can download a document or tell someone on the internet that they’re wrong, you’re completing a fragment of a huge puzzle.

The awesome might of crowd-sourcing has found its way into the world of science in the form of a game called Foldit.

Foldit was developed in 2008 after David Baker, a protein research scientist at the University of Washington, realised that humans are, in fact, better at spotting complex and creative solutions to scientific problems than computers are.

A recurring problem in the world of protein engineering is identifying the best possible structure for protein molecules to fold into. In order to better understand the inner workings of organisms on a molecular level (and learn more about illnesses and their treatments) researchers need to be able to visualise the correct folding patterns of long and complex protein molecules. Sometimes computer modelling alone cannot determine the most efficient folding pattern of a protein.

Baker’s plan was simple; to develop a puzzle game that could be downloaded for free, feed current protein structure problems into the game, and watch as hundreds of thousands of players came up with unique and creative solutions. The Foldit game presents players with a section of a protein molecule that computer modelling has been unable to arrange into the optimum orientation. Players are given instructions to rotate and bend different parts of the protein section to match certain criteria, and then can submit their attempts. These attempts are collated and compared by protein researchers, and the best possible structures are further investigated.

This isn’t just a little puzzle game designed to help students procrastinate; real scientific results have been reached using Foldit players’ suggestions. Most recently, a computer model of an enzyme capable of aiding in a Diels Alder reaction (a common chemical step in the synthesis of various compounds) has been completed thanks to the input of Foldit players. Players who are particularly active or advanced have even been named in published papers as contributors to the research. By approaching the protein-folding problem with an accessible and fun format, scientists have harnessed the power of hundreds of thousands of human minds to tackle big problems, one small step at a time.


If you’d like to join the effort to complete protein structures or just learn more about crowd-sourced research, visit



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