You've probably seen the Foldit blog post "Destroying a Silent Killer" about the new series of aflatoxin puzzles. It's kind of a big deal for Foldit, with corporate sponsorship from Mars, Incorporated and Thermo Fisher Scientific.
There was also a media event to kick things off, held October 16 in San Francisco, timed to coincide with the UN's World Food Day. I was lucky enough to be invited as a player, along with Susume, S0ckrates, katling, and dizzywings. There was to be a press conference, followed by a demonstration of folding in action.
In the press conference part, the speakers included Dr. Howard-Yana Shapiro, chief agricultural officer of Mars, Dr. Justin Siegel from the UC Davis (formerly of the Baker Lab), Brian Koepnick (bkoep), current member of the Baker Lab and the reigning "Mr. Foldit", and Dr. Helge Bastian from Thermo Fisher Scientific.
Dr. Shapiro (who's been known as the "man from Mars" long before I thought of it) really stole the show. He's a had a long-term commitment to solving food-related problems in the developing world. The Foldit aflatoxin challenge is just the latest facet. Check out his TEDx talk from 2010 (where he self-identifies as "the man from Mars"). In the talk, Dr. Shapiro describes solving problems with unprecedented, uncommon collaborations. (Sound familiar?)
After the press conference, we moved to a separate room to begin folding on Puzzle 1440. (Full disclosure: some of us got started on 1440 the night before.) The veteran players were joined by several graduate students from the UC Davis. We spent about an 90 minutes folding, while cameras and microphones were periodically trained on us.
So far, the media impact has been limited. Susume and Dr. Shapiro were interviewed for radio by the BBC's World Service, but unfortunately, the BBC has already taken these programmes offline. It's not clear to me which media were present at the time, but the entire event was recorded by a professional crew from CNC Communications, so no doubt there's more content in post-production now.
Post-event, Susume, katling, and I had lunch with bkoep and his Baker lab colleague Ian Haydon. (Gotta get him a Foldit screen name.) Ian had a particularly chilling explanation of Why Aflatoxin Is Bad. At first, it's just a garden-variety toxin, although nasty enough. Next, the liver attempts to eliminate it, but ends up creating something called aflatoxin 8,9 epoxide. That's epoxide as in "epoxy". The modified aflatoxin then sticks to your DNA. If a cell calls up that section of DNA to make a protein, it simply snips out the damaged part, CRISPR-style. As folders, we can foresee many ways in which this loss of sequence information can create problems. We're hoping to get Ian to expand on the aflatoxin story in a blog post.
We're already well into Puzzle 1440, but there are still eight days remaining, so plenty of time to get involved. It's a mega-puzzle, like the other current science puzzles, but at least for me, it's still playable, even on my oldest computer, a formerly XP and now Win10 laptop. More aflatoxin puzzles are in the works after 1440, but we'll see how things play out.
The kickoff was really exciting, and it was great to meet fellow players and the science team in person. (I was able to spot S0ckrates and Susume right away thanks to their twitch.tv streams.) Once things pass the dry lab stages, Thermo Fisher will be supplying free DNA to get the wet lab work started. Now all we need is Mars supplying free chocolate to keep the folders folding....