Return to the fold

Since 2000, millions of hours of computer time have been donated by people around the world to determine how proteins fold in the human body. This may help to understand and treat Alzheimer’s, cancer, HIV, flu, and the coronavirus.

Protein folding
DrKjaergaard / Public domain

Hey everyone. Things are pretty tough in the world right now, and I hope you’re all doing as well as you can given the circumstances. I debated whether to write about anything connected to the coronavirus pandemic on this website. You’re probably saturated with information about it (I know I am), and maybe the Generalist Academy would best serve as a nice distraction rather than yet another heavy weight. With that in mind,┬átoday’s topic relates to the coronavirus but only tangentially, and – I hope – optimistically. Today I’m writing about Folding@home.

Proteins are one of the key parts of how the human body works. When the human body forms amino acids into protein chains, those long strands are at first just long random coils. The proteins fold themselves into a stable 3-dimensional shape and that shape goes a long way towards determining how that protein functions in the body. And sometimes they mis-fold, and that leads to problems in the body.

It follows from all this that anything we can do to understand how proteins fold will help to understand a whole bunch of maladies, like Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, HIV, certain cancers, and viruses. We’d like to model protein folding with computers, but there’s a problem: it takes a lot of computing power. A lot. The question of protein folding may even be NP-complete. So, a lot a lot.

One computer isn’t enough. A hundred computers aren’t enough. But if you summon the otherwise unused processing power of computers all around the world, you may just get somewhere. Folding@home is a project that tries to brute-force our protein folding calculations.

You can contribute too: download the software from their website and install it on your computer. Then, whenever your computer is idle and isn’t using all of its processing power, it will instead put it towards protein folding modelling and related questions. Right now Folding@home is modelling Covid-19 proteins, so I think it’s worthwhile.

[Thanks to Metafilter for drawing my attention to this topic.]

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