As social beings, the sanctions placed on us during lockdown can be detrimental to our mental health, and as bad news continues to dominate the airways it can be frustrating and distressing to feel as though there’s nothing you can do to help. But budding citizen scientists have an opportunity to get involved thanks to a game that is challenging you to design an antiviral that could bind with SARS-CoV-2, all without leaving your house.
The SARS-CoV-2 pathogen is a virus from the coronavirus family, all of which are known to have a halo or “corona” of spike proteins (corona actually meant a crown-like item or gaseous membrane that envelopes a star long before the beer came along). These spike proteins are what enable the virus to identify and infect human cells and have been a key focus for research into vaccines and treatments.
An online gaming website that challenges players to “Solve Problems for Science”, has launched a new puzzle that dares citizen scientists to try and design an antiviral protein that could bind with the coronavirus. By blocking the spike proteins that detect and infect human cells, an antiviral could prevent people from getting sick with the disease, but how do you design an antiviral from scratch?
Foldit, which is run entirely by academic scientists at universities around America, is a game in which players fold proteins to uncover more about their structure and function. The non-profit online game has released a new Foldit puzzle that shows the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and offers two ways for you to get more familiar with the pathogen (without getting sick). The beginner mode gets you to fold an existing protein that binds with coronavirus, and the advanced puzzle challenges you to design a new protein from scratch.
And the game isn’t just an exercise in staying sane in isolation. The most promising design will actually be manufactured and tested at the University of Washington’s Institute for Protein Design in Seattle. The long and short of it? You could play a role in stopping the COVID-19 pandemic from the safety of your sofa.
The game’s designers, however, are quick to highlight that even designing the most effective of antiviral protein structures is just the first of many steps in drug production, and successful designs will still need to undergo a lot of investigation for safety and efficacy, which can take a long time.
There’s been a lot of isolation-shaming memes floating around preaching that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during lockdown, but he didn’t stop the plague. Don’t miss this opportunity to stick it to the Bard.