A. Verena Eireiner
Novel challenges call for creative solutions. As the COVID-19 pandemic keeps a tight grip on societies and economies around the world, researchers are racing to develop vaccines and treatments. But not just scientists are working on a cure ‒ the online game Foldit calls on citizens to do their part. Foldit is a crowdsourcing computer game that involves designing proteins and is part of a recent wave of citizen-driven research in biomedicine that targets socially relevant but under-researched scientific problems. The newest Foldit puzzles focus on the design of proteins that can bind ‒ and thus neutralize ‒ the COVID-19 viruses’ host-cell invading spike protein. Players and researchers hope to advance the knowledge base on COVID-19, spurring the identification and manufacturing of antiviral therapy.
A computer game that splits the complex task of developing antiviral therapy into levels, milestones and rewards promises a sense of empowerment and control in a time of uncertainty. Taking part in scientific groundwork takes nothing more than a computer with an internet connection. Upon successful download and launch, the player finds a program with an anachronistic, yet user-friendly interface. A yellowish background boldly exhibits a player’s score at the very top and a community chat at the bottom right.
Players of Foldit will quickly memorize a few essential facts: Proteins are large, complex molecules that play an important part in the functioning of cells, tissues, and organs. The ‘building blocks’ of proteins are amino acids. An amino acid comprises a backbone, which comes with groups of atoms hanging off its side, called sidechains. Taking centre stage, all the colourful bits and bops of a protein pop up. The player must adjust the protein, twist and turn sidechains, to achieve the right fold, a process that resembles the logic of a 3D game of Tetris.
In the Foldit world, the protein itself instructs the inept player through messages that appear in speech bubbles. They read “DNA can hydrogen bond to proteins!” and “Mutate this protein to form better bonds.” It guides the player through different campaign levels that teach the most important moves and rewards a completed level with points while the protein spins cheerfully in a whirlwind of confetti.
What looks like a straightforward, playful simulation on screen cannot actually account for a much more complicated reality. The science behind the pandemic’s cure is complex: The structure of the protein defines its function, and unfortunately, proteins are culprits for folding up in previously unforeseen ways which defy all expectations. Predicting exactly how proteins fold is one of the key challenges in developing COVID-19 therapeutics. Therefore, the scientists at the University of Washington who run Foldit put the designs they deem most promising to the test in their laboratories.
Foldit is just one initiative among many other crowdsourced data-intensive scientific projects that allow researchers to take on extensive projects that would ordinarily incur high labour and material expenses. Foldit takes advantage of human puzzle-solving abilities by having people ‘play’ competitively for the best protein fold. However, Foldit’s complexity sets it apart from other crowdsources games, as protein-folding requires not only patience and perseverance but also specialized training. The game promises to turn players into ‘game-developed experts’ that tackle 21st-century challenges – such as a pandemic.
Foldit tests the assumption that human players are more creative and imaginative, and thus more efficient, at designing proteins than computers. If this turns out to be true, the Foldit makers aim to make use of human strategies to improve the algorithms used by protein-folding software.
The crowdsourcing of crucial tasks in the design of therapeutics amidst a pandemic to ‘game-developed experts’ indicates a reworking of the boundaries between leisure and labour and between expert and citizen science. The design of proteins is tedious, complicated work. The gamification of complex scientific labour masks what is really at stake: Foldit is a tool, not a toy. It applies gaming elements to the non-game scientific workspace, hoping to make a tedious task amusing. The rules (“Don’t let them collide!”), feedback systems (time and moves to completion) and rewards (dancing proteins, confetti, points) are carefully layered over complex scientific training. This is done in the hope of retaining players and motivating others to join. In the process, the game collides the identities of player-researcher and citizen-expert. That players enjoy learning and continue to play for leisure is not the goal but the prerequisite of the game.
Foldit is one of many relatively new citizen-driven research initiatives that address complex problems in biomedicine. Other projects focus on alternative protocols to produce insulin, genetic at-home tests, Epinephrine Autoinjectors and apothecary laboratories for homemade pharmaceuticals. These groups and individuals often work with institutions under the umbrella of citizen science or as part of the heterogenous Do-it-Yourself Biology movement. Citizens have contributed to scientific research for a long time, e.g. by contributing data to the fields of botany or zoology. What is new is that nonprofessional scientists conduct research independently and/or take on highly complex and specialized tasks, like the design of proteins. What unites all these projects is the quest to create scientific knowledge, alternative protocols and methods that pave the way for treatments, equipment and testing.
The resulting knowledge and technologies often raise questions about credibility, safety and reliability but are really a testimony to dysfunctional health care systems and serious gaps in traditional scientific research agendas. Extra-institutional researchers often seek zones of what sociologist David J. Hess calls ‘undone science’‒ research that potentially yields great social benefit but is under-funded, incomplete or ignored by the research institutions of industry and academia.
The COVID-19 Foldit puzzles target the undone science of coronavirology. After the global viral outbreaks of SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV research activity on coronaviruses spiked but projects were quickly shelved as soon as the outbreaks were contained. The long timescale and high costs of producing promising treatments are not compatible with fluctuations in interests and funding, which is why there are sizeable gaps in the scientific knowledge base on coronaviruses. Foldit’s game-developed experts take on a task that is complicated, labour-intense and often under-funded to get some of the undone science of coronavirology done.
The COVID-19 crisis is likely to reshape our world and may foster more creative attempts to address ‘undone science’. We may see more citizen-driven initiatives that provide alternative pathways for enabling sustained, long-term basic research in biomedicine and other fields. The crisis has already changed the games of the scientific enterprise, as indicated by a prompt refocusing of attention and resources on COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments and speedier, or even suspended, peer review processes. Foldit’s quest to come up with a therapeutic might not be successful. However, the fact that individuals around the world can come together online at a moment’s notice shows that alternative research agendas and practices are imaginable, and that inventiveness and resourcefulness persevere even in the hardest of times.
A. Verena Eireiner is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge, where she coordinates the Science and Technology Studies Research Cluster. Her research focuses on the governance of emerging technologies, DIY practices, citizen science and open science.
Image Credit: Wikimedia