COVID-19, otherwise known as the novel coronavirus, is an ongoing global outbreak that has affected over 97 countries and territories. Declared as a public health emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO), there is currently no vaccine to completely stop this global epidemic. 

However, a team of researchers at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle have come up with an unusual technique to combat the COVID-19 virus outbreak: video games, providing a glimmer of hope in this gloom and doom time.  

Foldit, the crowdsourcing online puzzle video game that was launched in 2008, is being used by the researchers to learn more about the coronavirus.

In this video game, humans try to solve one of the hardest computational problems in biology: protein folding. Players fold proteins to understand their structures, which is “key to understanding how [a protein] works and to targeting it with drugs,” UW researchers say. 

The developers of Foldit have now released a new puzzle called “Coronavirus Spike Protein Binder Design,” which encourages scientists and members of the general public to step in and help to find a vaccine to curb the current coronavirus outbreak. 

The target of the coronavirus puzzle is a “spike protein” that allows the virus to infect human cells. The puzzle’s goal is to design a “binder” protein that sticks to the spike.

“Coronaviruses display a ‘spike’ protein on their surface, which binds tightly to a receptor protein found on the surface of human cells,” states the puzzle description on the website.   

“Once the coronavirus spike binds to the human receptor, the virus can infect the human cell and replicate. In recent weeks, researchers have determined the structure of the 2019 coronavirus spike protein and how it binds to human receptors. If we can design a protein that binds to this coronavirus spike protein, it could be used to block the interaction with human cells and halt infection.” 

This new puzzle has two different “difficulty levels”. In the easy level, players fold an existing coronavirus binding protein, while the harder level requires the players to design a new protein from scratch. Players of Foldit can compete against one another or they can collectively work to find out the best solutions. The most promising protein design will be tested at UW’s Institute for Protein Design.

“We want to give Foldit players the opportunity to design proteins that can bind to the spike protein and prevent infection”, explained Foldit scientist Brian Koepnick in a video. “What Foldit players will be doing is trying to design a new protein that can block this binding event. This could be used as an antiviral drug, something you could administer that would slow down or halt infection of coronavirus.”

He, however, pointed out that it could take a while until we get a working solution. “We do want to emphasise that, like all the research we do, laboratory testing takes time to see if these molecules are safe and effective against coronavirus.” 

If you are interested in creating an antivirus protein design, you can go to free-to-download Foldit game for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Once you download the game, you need to sign up after which you can start playing the tutorial puzzles.

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