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Want to Help Scientists Beat COVID-19? Play this Video Game.

Are you great at Tetris? Can you instantly analyze an Angry Birds scene and recognize the structure? Are you a lego master or a pro at packing your suitcase? Then you could put your spatial puzzle solving skills to help defeat the new coronavirus (COVID-19)!

Here’s how.

One of the challenges of creating an effective drug or vaccine is understanding how a virus functions. This might be strange, but a good proportion of how a virus functions comes down to it’s protein chains and how they are folded into each other (giving its shape). The shape defines how it interacts with our body, and how it makes us sick.

In other words, the shape (and how the protein chains are folded) are extremely important in understanding a virus.

So scientists run complex algorithms to try to figure how these long protein chains fold up. Essentially, it’s like crumpling up a paper as tight as possible, then unfolding it perfectly flat and trying to ask someone to recreate the crumple based just on the lines the paper leaves behind.  Complex, but seems like a simple thing for the computer to do, right?

Unfortunately, computers are notoriously bad at spatial puzzles! Does a line on a crumpled paper mean a valley or a peak? Does it bend somewhere slightly without folding at all? There are a mind-blowing number of possibilities, and computers just aren’t good at going through them quickly.

Humans though, are absolute geniuses compared to computers when it comes to this task. There’s something intuitive about working within space (after all, we live in a 3D world), such that we are able to complete these tasks much quicker than computers!

Fold.it is a program that turns these complex protein folding problems into a competitive computer game. It’s essentially a puzzle game, and all the players compete for a high score - with the highest scores being awarded to designs that are the most efficient and stable, which is what nature tends to end up with.

Lest you think this is all theoretical, the Fold.it game has already had successes. In one instance, there was an AIDS related enzyme that computers could not solve for about a decade. Scientists then gave the problem to Fold.it gamers, and in about three weeks, a solution was found!

If you’d like to try your hand at this puzzle game (and the specific puzzle to help beat the COVID-19 virus), you can try it here: https://fold.it/portal/node/2008926

Ok, but what if I’m not very good at puzzle games?

Fortunately, there are also alternative ways to help. While computers do perform relatively badly at spatial problems compared to humans, that doesn’t mean computers can’t try - especially if there’s enough computing power out there.

That’s where you can “donate” your unused computer processing power to projects trying to understand the COVID-19 virus. Much like the famed SETI project, there are several projects already in motion that are asking you to run a program in the background of your computer (how much computer power you want to use is up to you), so they can run complex algorithms across many computers. When combined, all these computers around the world become a collective supercomputer.

Folding @Home is one such project. This is the link to “donate” your computing power to the COVID-19 project: https://foldingathome.org/2020/02/27/foldinghome-takes-up-the-fight-against-covid-19-2019-ncov/

Rosetta @Home is another project. This is the link if you’d like to use their program: https://www.ipd.uw.edu/2020/02/rosettas-role-in-fighting-coronavirus/

Ok, I still want to help but I don’t have a computer...

As a bonus, there’s further good news: you can still help even without a computer at all. The most important thing you can do to prevent coronavirus and other illnesses is to wash your hands regularly and avoid touching your face. Cover your mouth and nose with your sleeve or a tissue when coughing or sneezing, avoid others who are unwell, and stay home when you are sick. Furthermore, making sure that you get your information about the virus from trusted sources such as the WHO, the BCCDC, or the CDC helps tremendously in stopping the spread of the virus. 

In other words, there’s a lot to do that we can help. Including, but not limited to, playing a video game.

Last updated: Mar 9, 2020