A group of gamers helped scientists solve a problem that had been stumping them for more than a decade. The best part? It took the gamers less than ten days.

Neither scientists nor specialized computer programs could calculate the correct structure for a particular protein. Each protein has an unique 3D structure which determines its function; if the folding is incorrect, the protein will often act as a toxin.  As a last-ditch effort to discover the true form, the scientists handed the information over to Foldit. Foldit is a puzzle game, one where players can work individually or together to create 3D structures. The purpose is to fold proteins into the most elegant, energy efficient forms possible for points.

Proteins are incredibly complex and diverse; individual portions of proteins can make up a scientist’s life work. They may have thousands upon thousands of parts, all of which need to be folded into a chemically accurate structure. Imagine a game with millions of ways to solve the same puzzle, where new puzzles are presented every day. If the molecule is chemically correct, or if the structure is more energy efficient than previous structures, the player is rewarded with more points.

Sometimes, however, the rewards are not just points or hours of amusement. Recently, members of the Contender Foldit group helped to solve a particularly difficult molecule: an enzyme that belongs to a retrovirus that infects monkeys. Retroviruses (like HIV) are particularly nasty because they alter the DNA of the infected cell – they literally become a part of you and utilize your body to continue recreating them. The structure stumped scientists, but the puzzle-craving teams on Foldit devoured the new structure and solved it in record time.

In a paper published today, it was announced that the Foldit solution underwent some testing and refinement, but was ultimately correct. The Contenders group made history – they utilized a game to help solve a real-life problem that can possibly help save lives. Crowdsourcing has been around for a while – Stanford teamed up with Sony to get Folding@home added to all the PSN updates after 1.3. But Foldit is the first group to solve a real problem.

While folding games may not be for everyone, you are more than welcome to give it a try. Who knows? You might join a team that solves the missing link to an incurable disease.