Research through distributed computing: Folding@Home

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This is something I have wanted to talk about here for a while now.

Computers have been used for scientific research since their invention, and computer simulations are currently researching most of the world’s incurable diseases. The most successful endeavour so far as been a project called Folding@Home. Folding@Home is extremely unique, in that it allows you to contribute spare processing power for this research.

What they do is chop up molecular simulations into bite-sized chunks for you to process at home. Once the simulation chunk (work unit) is completed, your computer uploads the results back to Stanford University where the research is analyzed. So what exactly are they analyzing? Proteins and how the fold. Trying not to get too technical, proteins change from an unfolded state to a folded state when they are working in your body. Sometimes, proteins misfold. Protein misfolding is the cause of many forms of Cancer, Alzheimer’s, Mad Cow disease, Parkinson’s, among many others. By running simulations designed to understand how and why proteins misfold, medical science is one step closer to understanding, treating, and possibly curing these diseases.

The project has published 63 peer-reviewed papers, and the research is continuing. I have been running the software on my computers for over four years now, and I’d like more people to be aware of it. Because this distributed computer model effectively gives Stanford University a supercomputer hundreds of times faster than the world’s fastest dedicated super computer, the combined efforts of every contributor is what makes the project successful.

You can find out more about the research project and the community built around it here. If you are interested in trying it, visit the download page and give it a go. They also add some competition to the research, as each work unit you submit gets you “points” based on how much processing power was required. I’ve had my own Folding@Home “team” for years, and we’re in the top 1000 worldwide. The team number is 34931 in case you’d like to join. I’ll make a banner to sit on the side of my blog permanently to help promote this, and I invite everyone to spread the word on their own blogs if they like the idea.

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