Mars, Inc. and collaborators launched an innovative food safety initiative to crowdsource solutions to solve aflatoxin, a little known but dangerous foodborne toxin that can cause liver cancer and stunting. On Monday, a series of aflatoxin puzzles were posted online on Foldit, a platform that allows gamers to explore how amino acids are folded together to create proteins.
The puzzles provide gamers with a starting enzyme that has the potential to degrade aflatoxin. Gamers from around the world then battle it out to redesign and improve the enzyme so that it can neutralize aflatoxin. Through innovation and collaboration, Mars’ goal is to combat the causes of unsafe food and improve global food security as part of its Sustainable in a Generation plan.
The Foldit aflatoxin launch is built on a collaboration of diverse parties including Thermo Fisher Scientific, the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA), the University of California, Davis, the University of Washington, Northeastern University and Mars, Incorporated. Foldit allows anyone in the world with a computer and an imagination to play. In fact, some of the best Foldit gamers have had no scientific training; the platform taps into humans’ innate puzzle-solving abilities to solve complex scientific problems.
The top aflatoxin designs will be synthesized using the latest synthetic biology techniques and materials donated by Thermo Fisher Scientific. They will then be tested at the labs in UC Davis for their real-world potential to eradicate aflatoxin. All player designs will be available in the public domain, free of patents, in order to maximize the positive impact that this project could have on global food safety.
The Foldit game was first released in May 2008, since then it has had a number of notable successes. For example, in 2011 a dozen gamers took only 10 days to unravel the structure of an enzyme involved in a virus similar to HIV – a problem that had troubled scientists for decades.
Aflatoxin was first discovered in 1960, and it is estimated that it contaminates approximately a quarter of the food crops in the world. The substance has been linked to stunting in children who consume it and it is estimated to cause 90,000 cases of liver cancer each year.
The toxin disproportionately affects people in poorer countries with less rigorous crop testing. Approximately 16 billion tons of corn are lost worldwide annually due to aflatoxin contamination. No current strategies to prevent aflatoxin infestation have been successful. Anyone keen to put their gaming skills to the test and join the initiative to eradicate aflatoxin can play the Foldit game at https://fold.it.