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Several vaccines are already in the pipeline to counter the devastating threat posed by the Ebola virus in Africa, but game players are using a collaborative puzzle program called Foldit to help look for new treatments. The online game, which was created by University of Washington researchers in 2008, enlists players to find the best ways to twist virtual protein molecules into the desired shapes.
For Ebola, the challenge is to fold proteins in such a way that they gum up the virus' molecular machinery. The first Ebola puzzle went up six months ago, and biochemists are following up on some of the virus-blocking designs developed by Foldit's puzzlemasters. Even though computer algorithms have gotten pretty good at solving protein-folding puzzles, Foldit's developers report that gamers can still find solutions that computers missed. Ebola isn't the only malady that Foldit's thousands of players have tackled: They've also worked on molecules linked to AIDS-like diseases, cancer and Alzheimer's disease. Not a gamer? Similar software called Folding@home can run by itself on your computer.