- Computer gamers joined forces in San Francisco on Monday — World Food Day — to play Foldit, a competitive online puzzle game. Their goal is to design brand new proteins by editing and “folding” the molecules differently. Ideally, gamers' contributions will result in a reworked protein structure to create an enzyme that can detect and neutralize aflatoxin, a family of toxins produced by fungi which contaminates approximately a quarter of the food crops in the world, according to a statement from Mars.
- The substance has been linked to stunting in children who consume it and is estimated to cause 90,000 cases of liver cancer each year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture regularly tests food for aflatoxin, which is a bigger danger in developing countries.
- Dr. Howard-Yana Shapiro, chief agricultural officer for Mars Inc., addressed the launch event, saying, "Four point five billion people in developing countries are chronically exposed to aflatoxin through their diet. This simply cannot continue. We’re excited to bring together this partnership using the innovative Foldit computer gaming platform. I hope today kicks off the process to say 'game over' to this silent but serious threat to food security."
About 15 gamers were hard at work Monday using the Foldit platform to try and solve the puzzle of aflatoxin. These people aren't scientists, but ordinary folks who like to solve challenges in their spare time.
"We have high school students, retired software engineers, men and women all working on this," Shapiro told Food Dive.
Mars is involved in the partnership in order to combat the causes of unsafe food and improve global food security as part of its Sustainable in a Generation plan. Besides the privately owned candy, food and drink company, other members of the collaboration are Thermo Fisher Scientific, the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa, the University of California-Davis, the University of Washington and Northeastern University.
Aflatoxins are a serious problem all over the world, but particularly in developing countries where testing and food safety regimes aren't as strong as in the U.S. The naturally occurring materials are stressed by climate change and drought, and most plants have not been bred to be aflatoxin-resistent.
Shapiro said that a recent study in India found that every sample of grain collected was contaminated at three times the legal limit set in the U.S. Africa's inability to meet aflatoxin standards for other countries has shrunk that region’s share of the global peanut market from 77% in the 1960s to 4% today. The lost exports cost Africa $1 billion a year in lost peanut revenue alone.
Computer scientists first developed Foldit, and they continue to run the gaming platform. It was spearheaded by the University of Washington in Seattle and Northeastern University in Boston. First released in 2008, the platform has had significant successes in a short time. In 2011, Foldit gamers helped solve the structure of an enzyme critical for reproduction of the virus leading to AIDS in rhesus monkeys.
Shapiro said it's possible the aflatoxin puzzle could be solved by Foldit gamers in the near future, although a few more steps will need to be taken after that.
"We'll find a solution, then it has to be tested, then it has to be translated, and then it has to be scaled, and that could be a two- or three-year process," he said.
Why would a global candy company be involved in finding a solution to the aflatoxin problem? Shapiro told Food Dive that because Mars operates around the world, there are times when 70% of its supplies have to be rejected. If those products aren't destroyed, they find their way into the food chain through another route.
"However you want to talk about it, in the end it's a moral responsibility," he said. "Being privately owned, we feel that we can act differently from everyone else. We acknowledge that we have to be part of the solution. We have to build uncommon collaborations because we can't do this alone."
Anyone interested in putting gaming skills to the test and joining the initiative to eradicate aflatoxin can join the Foldit game here.