Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Citizen Science: How People Power Is Helping to Solve Scientific Riddles


Science was once seen as off limits to the average person, to be only to be conducted by nerdy types in white coats, who speak in strange terms and don’t have much of a life. Well, that stereotype is well and truly toppled with the recent news regarding the use of a program called FoldIt, a group of gamers and the unravelling of a protein which is found in virus family known as retroviruses, which include the likes of HIV.

With recent technological developments, scientists are producing an ever-increasing amount of data, more data they can possibly hope to analyse in their lifetimes. On the opposite side of the spectrum, many people have computers, Xboxes and Playstations that don’t utilise their full processing power. In 2008, a group of Washington University researchers saw the potential to harness people’s technology in its downtime and FoldIt was the result.


FoldIt is just one example of a program that utilises either people or their technology (or in some cases both) to further scientific research. In the case of FoldIt, participants download the program, and then set about playing a ‘game’ against one another to determine a folding pattern for a particular protein. However in this case, this game doesn’t result in a high score, it results in contributing to scientific knowledge. Humans still outdo computers when it comes to complex pattern recognition and FoldIt harnesses our inner problem-solving capabilities to elucidate structures within a competitive gaming environment which makes the science fun! In regards to the protein mentioned earlier, FoldIt participants solved the structure of a protease whose structure had been baffling researchers for 15 years. Proteases are cutting enzymes and are important in the complex formation of retroviruses such as HIV. According to the FoldIt website, it took gamers just 3 weeks to sort out the predicted structure for the protein.


The results were published in the journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology with both researchers and gamers listed as authors. And the implications? A 3D structure is vital for scientists not only to study a protein and its interactions, but for finding new drug targets and designing new therapies. The combination of the citizen scientist and experts may mean the development of new drugs not only for HIV, but the likes of Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and other diseases.

From the smallest of viruses to the largest of the galaxies, the involvement of volunteers in science is making a big impact.


But the involvement of the community does not end there. Whilst one computer’s processing power may not seem like much, the combination of thousands of participant’s computers certainly adds up, and enables a lifetime’s worth of searching and analysis to be performed in a matter of days. A number of other research groups have applied people (and computing) power including in the field of astronomy. In August 2010, a paper was published in the prestigious journal Science, and was co-authored by a couple who were credited with discovering a new radio pulsar named PSR J2007+2722-. Radio pulsars are a signal of a neutron star. The couple were not researchers, but had downloaded Einstein@Home, a program which analyses gravitational wave sources, in the search for neutron stars, and were using their spare computing power to analyse masses of astronomical data. Neutron stars are what is left after a supernova, and thus can provide information about not only the lifecycle of a star but improve understanding about the workings of the universe.


The most famous use of voluntary computing resources is probably SETI@Home, which is the use of processing power to search for radio signals that may indicate the presence of intelligent life in the universe (aside from us, of course!). Established in 1999 by researchers the University of California Berkley, SETI@Home was the first use of home computer users, and currently there are over 5.2 million participants worldwide, who have logged over two million years worth of computing time – a massive feat, which may not have turned up ET but has demonstrated the need for people-power and how citizen scientists are turning up some great discoveries, which otherwise would just not be possible.


For further information on how you can get involved through your CPU to unravel HIV, search for neutron stars or search for extra-terrestrial life check out the homepages of the programs:

FoldIt

Einstein@Home

SETI@Home

Rosetta@Home

Folding@Home


And you never know, it may be your Playstation or computer which provides the next big discovery and helps scientists understand the world around us. Science is no longer just in the hands of the folk in white coats, it is in the hands of anyone who wants to get involved.


References:

Scientific American, September 20 2011 - Foldit Gamers Solve Riddle of HIV Enzyme within 3 Weeks

Science Daily, August 12 2010 - Citizen Scientists Discover Rotating Pulsar

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