Online game aims to help in fight against mycotoxins

Game screenshot courtesy the University of Washington

It sounds silly, but on World Food Day 2017 (October 16) a series of computer-based puzzles were introduced centered on the structure of an enzyme that can degrade the deadly mycotoxin aflatoxin.

(A mycotoxin is a naturally occurring toxin produced by mold or fungus growing on crops that can cause serious health issues if consumed. An estimated 90,000 cases of liver cancer are caused by aflatoxin each year.)

The puzzles were part of an already-existing game that helps scientists better understand protein structures and how they “fold,” which allows them to better understand their function and how they might be used in the real world — in this case, to potentially fight aflatoxin.

Normally, laboratory processes to determine an enzyme’s structure are expensive and slow. Tapping into human spatial reasoning ability, in some cases, expedites that daunting process. That’s where the game comes in. Called Foldit, it was developed by experts at the University of Washington.

In Foldit, gamers digitally manipulate a 3-D model of an enzyme, folding and refolding movable parts into more efficient structures. You don’t need a biochemistry degree to play the game, because introductory tutorial levels explain how it works.

Players earn points for discovering new configurations for the many parts of the structure. Their scores go onto a leaderboard, pushing other players to score higher.

“For these puzzles, even we don’t know the highest score possible,” say the game-makers in their introductory video. “We found that in certain cases, Foldit players are able to outperform purely computational methods to accurately predict protein structures.”

Researchers from the University of Washington then analyze the highest-scoring solutions to see whether or not there are any natural structural configurations that match up in the real world.

Foldit has already proven successful. Players solved the structure of an AIDS-related protein, a puzzle that had stumped researchers using both experimental and computational methods for years. For the aflatoxin puzzle, there are no answers yet, but over 400,000 designs have been generated. These designs, which are kept in the public domain, need to undergo real-world testing before any applications can be outlined.

Neogen offers a comprehensive range of mycotoxin test kits to detect aflatoxin and other mycotoxins. Click here for more information.

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