Gamers provided a huge assist to scientists trying to crack the nut of how proteins form their finalized, 3-D shape.
It sounds simple, but with anything more than a short chain of amino acids, there are a tremendous number of potential configurations to be sampled in 3D space, which can bring powerful computers to their knees.
The Rosetta algorithm handles the huge energy landscape it needs to scan by taking big leaps between different configurations, then attempting to minimize the energy by making smaller tweaks. This lets it sample large portions of the structural landscape, but sometimes leaves it stuck: the path between its current location and an energy minimum may take it through a high energy state, which would keep Rosetta from finding the solution.
Apparently, the program’s home users noticed that the screensaver would often show the program stuck close to a much better structure. One of Foldit’s developers is quoted as saying, “People started writing in, saying, ‘I can see where it would fit better this way.'”
The Rosetta team decided to give them a chance to see if they really could.
I’m still a little fuzzy trying to figure this all out.