With around 240,000 registered players FoldIt is proving invaluable for researchers trying to solve the complex structural and folding patterns of proteins. Players can bend and pull proteins into their optimum shape, as long as they obey the rules of physics. The closer your attempts at protein origami adhere to those rules, the more points you get.
In recent months the game-playing volunteers have shown they can both actively predict protein structures and design new proteins. Last September, scientists reported the structure of a key enzyme that allows HIV to replicate, making it an obvious target for drugs. The precise protein structure had stumped them for almost 15 years, but the FoldIt community produced it within days. In January this year, gamers produced the first crowdsourced protein redesign – revving up the performance of an enzyme for one of the most important reactions organic chemists use to build compounds ranging from drugs to pesticides.
Another online program, Phylo, is advancing scientists’ knowledge of genetics by making a game out of DNA matching. If areas of genetic sequence are roughly similar between species, it suggests strongly that they could have an important function. Finding them has been beyond the scope of computer algorithms. But earlier this month, researchers published a study where gamers outsmarted the best computers – they made the best possible DNA sequence match between up to eight species at a time.
Despite these notable successes, CCC’s Grey is quick to point out that volunteer computing does not provide a universal solution. “There are certain problems you can crack with a supercomputer that would be hopeless with volunteer computing,” he says. Supercomputers are best suited for problems where thousands of processors must communicate with each other and swap data frequently during a calculation, according to Grey. Volunteer computing works best on easily shared problems that are divisible into digestible pieces that can be worked on in any order at any time.
That said, the successes highlight how much volunteers want more of an active role in citizen science. Volunteers do not just want to contribute data passively to a study, they want to learn and develop as a result of taking part. Some projects have volunteer-run support, forums and message boards. Scientists, volunteers, and the open-source community gather at hackfests to find volunteer programming and computing solutions to science problems.
Cern’s Segal says he has been struck by volunteer’s appetite for learning on projects like LHC@Home, and that volunteer computing seems to attract a lot of retired scientists and teachers, as well as people with a degree in science who wound up doing some other job. “We’ve had a number of cases of people who put in hours of unpaid labour to help newbies,” he says. “The advantage is that it can be self-policing, much like the original Wikipedia.”
But the deepest forests of the Congo Basin may provide a glimpse of where citizen science could be heading. An initiative aims to help pygmy tribes fight logging and poaching in this area by allowing them to document destruction and deforestation with games and interactive maps.
This initiative is part of the Extreme Citizen Science programme based at University College London, which officially launched in February this year. Headed by computer scientist and geographer Muki Haklay and anthropologist Jerome Lewis, the idea is to allow any community, regardless of their literacy to start, run, and analyse a scientific study – whether it is to advance interests, or to effect policy change. “We want to move citizen science from the educated to everyone,” says Haklay.