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Can children fold proteins?

Smart child and protein folding

Can children fold proteins?

During the summer holidays I volunteered to hold a workshop about protein folding at the summer camp for Gifted Children Denmark. The idea was to let interested children and teenagers try the foldit game. The foldit game is a prime example of gamification of a scientific problem: How do we get from an extended amino acid chain to a folded protein? The game has been designed so that one should be able to play it without any biochemistry and structural biology background. With about 20 children between the age 8 to 18 attending the workshop, this was certainly put to a test!
The foldit game was made to crowd source citizen science. The goal of the game is to get a good score, which is based on an underlying force field energy which models the physical forces of the protein. The players can drag and manipulate the protein chain and get help from tools like “Shake”, which tests out alternative side chain conformations and “Wiggle” which minimizes the backbone energy according to the forcefield. The automatic minimization often gets caught in a local energy minimum, but the player can help the folding along with placing “rubber bands” between structures or atoms.
Testing ideas like “These predicted beta sheets are probably aligned” and “the hydrophobic side chains indicate that the helix should be rotated this way” let the player help the folding process over the barriers. The foldit game has a collection of tutorial puzzles, but also introduce problems where the structure of the protein fold is unknown and of scientific interest. You can read more about the game on the home page:

The foldit game interface

The foldit game interface

I gave a brief introduction and then let the children loose on the tutorial puzzles. Questions like “What is a backbone?” and “What’s a helix?” quickly arose, but the children nevertheless tackled the problems with great concentration and enthusiasm. There became longer and longer between the questions (I even got some time to play myself).
After one and half hours of concentrated folding, the youngest children started to get satisfied. But some of the teenagers stayed on and got to the beginners scientific puzzles. Here one of the teenagers found very good solutions for the Mini Arabidopsis Multi-Start and Easy Mini Freestyle puzzles which brought our group to the top of the ranks. When I asked about it, the answer was along the lines: “I don’t know exactly what I’m doing, I just use some of the tools in the game and see how the protein behaves”. Human intuition together with force field minimization doesn’t seem to be a bad combination.
So the answer to the rhetorical question in the title is a definitive: Yes!

And it was a fun experience too.

Best Regards


Gifted Children is a non-profit association for gifted children and their parents. Gifted children advocates a better understanding and knowledge of gifted children, and defines 5% of the population as gifted. In Denmark this corresponds to about 35,000 school children and 10,000 children in kindergarten. However, schools and kindergartens are not always able to provide the children with the necessary activities and environment for them to thrive and develop optimally. Thus Gifted Children makes activities for the children, let them build friendships across the country and give their parents a network with other parents to gifted children. Read more about the work of the non-profit association at the homepage.

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