According to the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, a group of online gamers has unlocked the mysterious, highly complex structure of a critical retroviral protease that baffled AIDS scientists for over a decade. And the gamers' surprising discovery has paved the way for an "extraordinary" breakthrough in AIDS research. Here's what you need to know:

What happened?
Scientists have been toiling for more than a decade to figure out the detailed molecular structure of a retroviral protease that plays a key role in how AIDS is spread, says Alan Boyle at MSNBC, weighing millions of possible links between atoms and molecules. Mapping the protease's structure would theoretically enable scientists to design drugs that could "stop the virus in its tracks." Though scientists were stumped, a group of online gamers was able to map the mysterious enzyme within three weeks using a game called Foldit. 

How does Foldit work?
This is not Super Mario Bros. Foldit is a program created by researchers at the University of Washington that "transforms problems of science into a competitive computer game," says Fox News. More than 236,000 players have registered for the game over the past three years. Players manipulate virtual molecular structures as if they were Tinkertoy sets, says Boyle, using the same chemical rules that apply to molecules in real life. The more elegant a player's structure is, the more points he scores. After being challenged by researchers to help map this protease, several players worked together to solve this particular puzzle in a matter of days.

What does this mean?
The researchers quickly confirmed that the players' solution "was almost certainly correct," allowing them to begin translating the game's results into a scientific rendering of the protein that could lead to significant developments in the design of anti-AIDS drugs, says Leslie Horn at PC Mag. The success of Foldit also shows how crowdsourcing could lead to significant scientific breakthroughs.

Is this the future of research?
Science-oriented video games could help in drug development, genetic engineering, and biofuels, says Boyle. But that doesn't mean Foldit is the next Farmville, says Firas Khatib at the University of Washington. "Let's be honest, proteins aren't the sexiest video game out there."

Sources: Fox News, International Business Times, MSNBC, Nature, PC Mag