28 Dec 2013

Origami Citizen Science

How can someone help in the medical search for a treatment for AIDS, without being a research scientist in a lab or a doctor in a hospital? There's a new way now to be part of medical research, and it includes people who have no medical training at all. This kind of citizen science requires access to a computer, and an interest in playing games.

This picture from Foldit is a model of a streptococcus molecule.

The game used to help in the search for an AIDS treatment is called Foldit -- click here to go to their website and learn how this game shows different ways that proteins can be folded. To put it simply, proteins are long molecules that aren't just straight like beads in a necklace. Proteins are folded into crooked shapes. Some proteins are useful when folded in a certain way, but not useful when folded a different way.

This picture from Foldit shows the same model, unfolded.
Medical researchers study the shapes of proteins, sometimes using nuclear magnetic resonance to see these tiny shapes. Sometimes a computer program is used to make models of all the possible ways to fold a protein. It's a bit like the Japanese art of origami - if a piece of paper is folded one way, a cup is made. Fold the same piece of paper another way to make a toy bird. (Here's a link to a website about origami.)

There's an article by Ed Yong describing how the game Foldit was used to solve the shape of a particular protein. It turns out that no matter how good a computer program is at folding shapes, people are still better than computer programs at picking the right places to try small changes. People playing Foldit took three weeks to solve a question about one particular protein that AIDS researchers have been studying for years.

Citizen science is getting to be pretty popular these days. There are many ways for ordinary citizens to assist trained scientists in the gathering of data, such as the volunteers who assist in bird-banding programs. An international website allows people to report finding a bird with a band around its leg. There are other programs such as Neptune, where people can log in to observe a few minutes of video (or hours, if you prefer) recorded at the bottom of the ocean near Vancouver Island, and alert the researchers about anything interesting that happens at particular points of the video. At Sci/Why, we wrote about a teenager who made a discovery on Neptune video.

For origami fans, there are other scientific discoveries about this art of folding. One recent invention is a sheet of plastic that can fold itself into two different forms -- check out this article from Scientific American magazine! Another article in Scientific American notes that other kinds of plastic origami might be useful for shaping cells into tiny containers for future medical uses.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Really interesting, thanks​!​

I think that you would be really interested in some recent research that I have come across explaining crowds and citizen science.​ ​In particular I feel you may find these two emerging pieces of research very relevant:

- The Theory of Crowd Capital

- The Contours of Crowd Capability

Powerful stuff, no?