First, my usual little disclaimer: Biology and chemistry are absolutely fascinating—if frustratingly complex—subjects, and although I’ve done quite a bit of research and studying on my own, I have neither the qualifications nor the experience of a professional; much of what I post here will very likely be oversimplified, misinterpreted, or just plain wrong.
As I was sitting in my Biology I class this morning (yeah, I put off taking that class as long as I possibly could, but now I have a much better attitude towards it), the professor reviewed some basic chemistry from a biological perspective. She mentioned molecules and receptor sites on cells (the “lock and key” mechanism), which reminded me of a very important project I had almost forgot I was working on.
Okay, when I say “I’m working on” this project, it’s a bit of a stretch. Really, my computer’s doing all the work, and the science is being done by Stanford University.
I’m talking about the Folding@Home project.
Stanford’s site does a decent job of explaining it, but I’d like to take a crack at explaining it as well.
Proteins are incredibly important in biology, and extremely diverse. While the average person might think protein only has to do with dairy, eggs, or meat, proteins are actually found in every living organism. Every species can potentially produce a vast number of proteins, some unique to that particular species or family. These proteins are (partially) what can cause the allergic reaction to things like gluten, which results in Celiac Disease.
On the outermost edge of a cell (the cell wall or cell membrane) are tiny “receptor” sites that match up to a particular part of a protein, which the cell then responds to. Neurons, for example, which make up a large part of our nervous system including the brain, have receptor sites that match up to neurotransmitters, which can affect whether the synapse “fires” or not.
When a protein begins, it starts off as a chain of amino acids. It has no real defined shape until it’s folded within the cell, but sometimes this folding can be disrupted, resulting in a misfolded protein. When that happens, it won’t fit into the correct receptor site, but worse than that, it might actually fit into the WRONG receptor site, producing a much different effect. Misfolded proteins are linked to diseases like ALS, Alzheimer’s, and many forms of cancer.
Stanford wanted to understand this folding process, and the best way to do so would be to simulate the folding of a protein through a computer generated simulation. The problem, however, lies in the fact that a) there’s just an almost unimaginable number of proteins that exist in nature, and b) the simulation is computationally expensive (meaning it takes a lot of CPU power to simulate). Even the largest, most powerful computers in the world couldn’t solve this problem in a realistic time span.
So instead, Stanford devised the Folding@Home project, which everyone can download and use their computer’s idle time (for example, when you’re asleep, or even while you’re actively using it—often times, basic tasks like e-mailing and web browsing leave a lot of idle/unused processing power, which Folding@Home can make use of without affecting your working or browsing). Folding@Home’s servers send a sort of scenario to your computer, and your computer will run the simulation in the background.
This might not sound that impressive, but when you consider the number of personal computers in the nation, it adds up.
So what are you currently doing with your computer’s idle processing time? Why not use it to advance science and help find a cure or treatment for diseases?
Head to Stanford’s Folding@Home page to download the client! Then let me know how many points per day you’re earning! =P