University of Washington coronavirus puzzle game aims to crowdsource a cure

These diagrams show schematic diagrams of the “spike” that’s used by the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 to force its way into the cells it infects. The diagram at the left shows the spike with a type of molecular key known as the RBD in the “down” position. The middle diagram shows RBD-up conformation, and the diagram at right shows the spike on the SARS virus for comparison’s sake. (Wrapp et al. / UT-Austin / NIH via Science / AAAS)

The University of Washington is taking a novel approach to combat the spread of coronavirus around the world.

A new puzzle game from the university challenges scientists and the public alike to build a protein that could block the virus from infiltrating human cells. The game is on Foldit, a 12-year-old website created by the university’s Center for Game Science designed to crowdsource contributions to important protein research from more than 200,000 registered players.

The most promising ideas generated by the game will be tested and possibly manufactured by UW’s Institute for Protein Design in Seattle.

The virus is known as COVID-19 — short for Coronavirus disease 2019 — and it has spread around the world, infecting more than 89,000 people and killing more than 3,000. The title “Coronavirus” is not just limited to this virus, but a class of viruses, including the common cold and SARS, that have a crown-shaped spike of proteins on top. “Corona” is the Latin word for crown. The symptoms associated with COVID-19 include fever, coughing and shortness of breath, on a level much more serious than that seen in cold sufferers.

Coronaviruses spread when the spike proteins on their surface bind tightly to receptor proteins found on the surface of human cells, according to the Foldit puzzle description. When that happens the “virus can infect the human cell and replicate.”

“In recent weeks, researchers have determined the structure of the 2019 coronavirus spike protein and how it binds to human receptors,” according to the puzzle description. “If we can design a protein that binds to this coronavirus spike protein, it could be used to block the interaction with human cells and halt infection!”

The virus has mainly impacted China, which represents nearly 90 percent of confirmed cases, according to a tracker created by Johns Hopkins University. There are 86 confirmed cases in the U.S., and the first two coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S. occurred in the Seattle area.

The tech world is taking serious precautions to try and avoid further spread of the virus. Amazon and Google are among the tech giants that are restricting employee travel. Big tech conferences, including Facebook’s F8, Mobile World Congress and Game Developers Conference, have been cancelled or postponed.

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