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Pletsch says he started playing Foldit shortly after its Internet release in May 2008. Folding solo, he has set the top score on more than 30 of the challenges posted on the website, and he's one of the star performers on the “Another Hour Another Point” team.
Over the last year, Baker and colleagues have invited a handful of Foldit savants, including several Another Hour members, to Seattle for debriefings. In two 20- to 30-minute computer sessions last October, Pletsch showed off his best moves. He says he doesn't stick to a script when he folds, but he does follow a rough plan. For example, he usually starts by giving the protein a few good shakes, which can jostle the molecule into a more efficient configuration.
What impressed Baker about Pletsch's play was his facility for breaking up the molecule onscreen and piecing it back together in a more efficient shape. According to Baker, that requires “phenomenal visual ability.”
Baker won't say that humans are better than computers at folding proteins. But he and his colleagues are poring over the savants' play to reveal steps that a computer could emulate. Some attributes of these master players are already clear, though, such as having really good three-dimensional visualization skills. “Being a scientist doesn't help at all,” says Baker, who admits his own performance on the game is middling—his 13-year-old son trounces him.
The team recently provided the savants and other Foldit aficionados with a new way to tickle their brains: designing compounds that could possibly furnish treatments for AIDS, malaria, and other diseases. The first challenge, which the team plans to release soon, will ask players to craft a molecule that can jam the flu virus and prevent it from entering cells to start an infection. Pletsch says he's eager to give the design feature a try. “It allows someone with a casual interest to take a crack at some usable solutions.”
Photo: University of Washington