Researchers at the University of Washington were stumped. They were looking at a protein that causes AIDS in rhesus monkeys, but after 14 years of study, no one was able to figure out the protein's exact structure.
Researcher Firas Khatib tells Rachel Martin, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that even the most advanced imaging techniques couldn't capture this little particle.
"The reason that the problem is so hard is that proteins are so small you can't see them with a microscope," he says.
Also, a protein can fold up into so many possible shapes that a computer can't run through them all.
But when scientists failed, gamers came to the rescue.
Seth Cooper, creative director of the university's Center for Game Science, had invented a computer game called Foldit, in which players compete against one another to design the most accurately folded proteins.