We are all aware about the new coronavirus COVID-19, and how it is rapidly spreading everywhere in the world. The World Health Organization and all the national sanitary systems are working on finding a solution to this global problem. But what we can do, as geeks, nerds and developers, to help experts in containing the spreading of this virus?
In this article we will explore an interesting application named FoldIt, developed and maintained by a team of researchers in the field of protein design and bioinformatics. This application consists in a puzzle game where users have to fold proteins in order to achieve specific goals. Recently, a new puzzle has been added to FoldIt, specifically designed to find a new protein that can bind to one of the coronavirus spike proteins.
Coronavirus: a bit of information
To use the FoldIt puzzle properly, you first need to know something more about coronavirus. Let’s start with its structure:
Coronaviruses display a ‘spike’ protein on their surface, which binds tightly to a receptor protein found on the surface of human cells. Once the coronavirus spike binds to the human receptor, the virus can infect the human cell and replicate…Source: FoldIt, description of the “Coronavirus Spike Protein Binder Design” puzzle
In order to find a good protein that can attach to this spike proteins, experts need to conduct a non-trivial design process, which often require a lot of time. This issue was the main inspiring idea behind FoldIt: researchers hope to leverage on gamers’ tireless compulsion to solve problems, in order to help scientific innovation.
On the other hand, a question may arise: can the scientific community only rely on gamers to find a proteins to attack such viruses? The answers, of course, is ‘No’. Indeed, several proteins have been already discovered that are able to attach the new COVID-19, and tests have already started. However, new proteins may result in some easier implementation of a cure, and that’s why our help, although very limited, may end up in something really useful.
The more we know about how certain proteins fold, the better new proteins we can design to combat the disease-related proteins and cure the diseases.Source: Foldit FAQ page
How to play with FoldIt
If you want to play with FoldIt, you just need to visit the official website and download the application. You can chose your preferred version based on the operating system you are using (Linux, Windows and OSX are all available options).
Once downloaded, follow the installation wizard, then launch the software and wait until it will download all the required binaries. The software will also check for updates.
When this preliminary stage ends, login with your credentials (you can create an account if you don’t have one), go to the Main Menu (you can reach it from the Puzzle Menu), and select Science Puzzles. There, you will find the puzzle number 1808, flagged with an intermediate level difficulty, titled “Coronavirus Binder Design: Round 2”. Indeed, Round 1 has been completed on March 3rd, and scientists are already evaluating users’ solutions.
From this screen, you can start experimenting your designs. If you are new to this world, it’s probably better if you start with the tutorial puzzles, in order to learn both how to use FoldIt, and also few things about how proteins behave.
FoldIt has many other puzzles that you may consider to work on, which may help solving other practical issues. Moreover, there are many other initiative out there to help in containing this COVID-19 outbreak.
Of course, do not forget to wash your hands often, do not touch your eyes, and limit contacts with other people! Such rules are crucial, and even us, as developers, should always keep in mind them.
In the meanwhile, you may try to code some interesting tool to help in this direction: check out the following video, hopefully it can give you the right amount of inspiration!