Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Can gaming be good for science? Yes it can!

Recently, computation research using the power of off-the-shelf computer gaming technology has unveiled secrets in the human carbohydrate bar-code.

BBSRC-funded researchers at the University of Manchester's Institute of Biotechnology used the gaming technology to capture previously unobservable atomic movements. The research is helping to chart one of nature's most complex entities known as glycomes -- the entire complement of carbohydrates within a cell.

This novel repurposing of existing technology provides a new way to learn about these vital biomolecules, which play a role in everything from neuronal development, inflammation and cell structure, to disease pathology and blood clotting.

Understanding the shapes of major biological molecules has revolutionized industries like drug development and medical diagnostics, but the shape of complex carbohydrates has been largely ignored, leaving unseen a huge area of opportunity. And gaming technology is helping us see the previously unseen.

The research provides a new view of these biochemical barcodes and presents new opportunities in the science of carbohydrates, such as designing drugs or biomaterials that mimic carbohydrate shape.

Dr. Ben Sattelle from the Faculty of Life Sciences said, "Carbohydrate activity stems from 3D-shape, but the link between carbohydrate sequence and function remains unclear. Sequence-function relationships are rapidly being deciphered and it is now essential to be able to interpret these data in terms of molecular 3D-structure, as has been the case for proteins and the DNA double-helix."

He added, "By using technology designed for computer games, we have been able to investigate the previously unseen movements of carbohydrates at an atomic scale and over longer timescales than before. The insights relate carbohydrate sequence to molecular shape and provide information that will be vital for many industries."

Modeling carbohydrate motions in water is computationally demanding. Previously researchers had been using conventional software and central processing unit (CPU) based computers, which has restricted us to simulating only nanosecond timescales -- which is only a few billionths of a second. But by using the extra computational power of graphics processing units (GPUs) that are commonly used in games to produce moving images, the team from Manchester achieved simulations ranging from one microsecond (the time it takes for a strobe light to flash) to twenty-five microseconds, or a few millions of a second. So we are now able to "watch" these molecules on a timescale 25,000 times longer than was previously possible!

And to think that this is all possible because of a technology that was created to meet a consumer demand in a completely different industry -- entertainment.

Now this is not uncommon. It happens all the time. Technologies created to meet the demands of one industry are often repurposed to meet the demands of other industries. It's all part of how technology evolves.

And this applies not just technologies, but also to ways of thinking. We repurpose technologies for other fields analogously to how we repurpose ways of thinking for other goals.

Consider how we play games. A child whose goal is to beat a game, or win a gaming competition, is learning techniques to excel at that game that he'll end up using later for other goals in his life. One thing that gamers learn is a better attitude towards mistakes. A gamer learns that mistakes are a necessary part of gaming, and so he welcomes the knowledge that he made a mistake. He learns that the important thing is to try to learn from his mistakes, to identify them and to create ways of preventing himself from making those mistakes going forward. This is a way of thinking that leads to a lot of progress, and more importantly, sustained progress!

Having a bad attitude towards mistakes is a barrier to progress. So gamers repurpose this way of thinking to other goals in their lives analogously to how these researchers have repurposed computer gaming technology for the field of biochemistry.

So progress in one field (or goal) often leads to progress in other fields (or goals).

That's the power of human innovation! That's the power of the human mind!


Author: Rami Rustom

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