University of California
University of California

What’s the Matter?!

Oliver Barnes | Science

Every month we’ll be bringing you the best in science with our columnist Oliver Barnes in ‘What’s the Matter?’. If you’ve got anything you want to learn about from space to spores then send us an email at [email protected]! Now let’s get experimenting…


Do you like gaming? Do you like science? Do you want to impact the world in real time?


Of course the answer to all these questions is yes! And guess what? There is a way to combine all three into one pastime. It’s called Fold it: a puzzle game that involves folding and configuring a protein arrangement in 3 dimensions.


You might be getting to this point and thinking to yourself, ‘wait I know that there is protein in my steak and my mate who goes to the gym is always guzzling the stuff to get mad buff but what does that have to do with helping research?’.


The truth is that not only is there protein in steak – and your mate Vlad’s ripped six pack – but it’s in your salad, eyes, stomach, hair and pretty much every part of your body. In fact, all cells have proteins and they have a huge range of different roles in your body and the world. For example did you know that all the food you digest is broken down by proteins called enzymes?


To put it simply proteins are one of the most basic building blocks of life and that is in part thanks to  little things called amino acids. In the human body there are 20 unique amino acids that make a chain to create a protein, and their order makes them interact differently with their surroundings. If you look at the median protein length in the human body it’s 480 amino acids long.(1) A little math will tell you that 20480= … is too much for my calculator to comprehend and that’s a lot. Seriously though, that number is huge!


Not only is the order of the amino acids important to figure out, but also something called conformation in space. This means we aren’t just talking about a chain or line of amino acids the reality is that they are in a 3 dimensional environment and they take 3 dimensional shapes. These are also very important to understand to know how they interact with their surroundings. It’s getting complicated… imagine how biologists feel!


So by now you might be asking ‘what has all this got to do with computer games and making a difference?’.  Well, Fold it has been developed to make state of the art protein construction tools available to the public. We have all heard that two heads are greater than one, so it follows that seven billion heads are better than two. In fact, problems that scientists have been trying to solve for decades are now being figured out by ordinary people around the world as they now have the tools to contribute in their spare time.


The impact of this is huge! With a better understanding of how proteins are structured and behave medicine can be developed to help people with previously untreatable conditions, including genetic diseases. You could save someone’s life in your spare time. Got a sec?


Want to see some proteins today? Check out this month’s experiment to find out how!
Image: University of California


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