Can Foldit teach IB biologists about protein structure?

Saturday 18 January 2014

Foldit is an online game in which humans try to solve one of the hardest computational problems in biology: protein folding. That is building the tertiary structure of proteins. Surprisingly you don't need to know anything about biology to play the game, but the big question is, "Will your students learn anything about proteins?" I wasn't sure, so I spent two hours this afternoon downloading the program and playing the game.

At first the interface seemed a bit complicated. The instructions which guided my first steps were not as clear as I had hoped.  The guide for teachers said to set up a group first for your students. The admin was a bit 'clunky' but don't be put off.

The place to get started is the Tutorial Puzzles  As soon as I began it really did seem like a computer game.  The first steps are very easy, and rewards frequent, rather like Angry Birds.  The controls are not quite so intuitive as other computer games but excellent pop up suggestions guide you through the first steps, and each success unlocks a new tool.  I was lead through a series of problems of increasing complexity until problem ten, when I stopped to write this blog post.  A couple of times I made a complete mess of the protein but there is, luckily, an option to start again from the beginning of that problem, or even to return to your closest solution.

This is the 10th protein I folded.  You can clearly see the alpha helices and the beta pleated sheets with their hydrogen bonding.

What about the question, "Will students learn about proteins?"  The short video above shows the interface.  The secondary structures are not labelled but they are clearly visible, the amino acids with their corresponding R-groups glow when you hover over them, and the whole exercise shows the tertiary structure much better than any text book diagram.  With a careful introduction from the teacher I am convinced that student understanding of protein structures would be enhanced by playing this 'game'.  I think students would also gain in confidence when looking at the 3D models now visible in Google image searches, and in sites using JMol.  Definately worth a try with a HL IB class during the Proteins topic.

What Next?

  • Foldit 101 <- Helps with all of the other things you may find useful to know including recipes.
  • FAQs <- Frequently asked questions (including Tracks & Multiple Foldit clients)
  • How to get started <- With pictures from an actual puzzle

This video is a very good introduction to the project


Tags: proteins, hl


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