Help scientists study diseases with [email protected]

20110321-folding@home

[email protected] is a distributed computing project run by Stanford University in California that is used to help scientists try to understand diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, also known as ‘Mad cow disease’), Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and many types of cancer.

It’s called a distributed computing project because by downloading and installing the [email protected] software the project can split up the work across many thousands of computers – making one of the largest supercomputers in the world – which is much faster than doing it all on one really large computer. The adage “many hands make light work” was never more true than here.

Proteins

The project studies how proteins fold, or rather how they can misfold and the resulting diseases that can occur as a result.

There’s a very helpful explanation on the bit-tech.net website:

In simple terms, a protein starts out as a long string of amino acids, but it can’t perform its biological function until this string is transformed into a three-dimensional shape. This transformation is called folding, and once the protein has folded, it can then perform its biological function.

However, proteins can also misfold and take on a different three-dimensional structure. A simple example of this process can be seen when cooking an egg. Crack an egg into a pan, and you can see the proteins of the egg white in their natural runny state. As you apply heat to them, the proteins start to unfold. After this, the amino acids from the different proteins that comprise the egg white will then mix, causing the egg white to change texture and become solid. Proteins changing like this inside the body can have drastic consequences, though, particularly as the process is often irreversible.

(Source: What is Folding and Why Does it Matter? by Ben Hardwidge,
15 June 2009)

The screenshot above is of the current portion of work that my PC is working on.  The report says that this is “ALZHEIMER DISEASE AMYLOID”.

My dad had Alzheimer’s disease which is why I first got involved in this project many years ago, and then only just remembered about it recently.

Teams

To add to the excitement of letting this project use spare cycles of your PC—that is while it’s just sitting around idle, waiting for your next genius email composition or while you’re out at lunch—you can also join a team.

Teams add nothing more than a sense of competition and camaraderie: a way to encourage your friends to all join up and work together.

And it works: I’m a member of the bit-tech.net Custom PC team (team ID 35947) because I first read about the project in Custom PC magazine back in 2007.

Individually I’m currently ranked at 597,497 out of 1,529,125, but my team is currently ranked at 7 out of 196,682; you can also see all the teams’ statistics.

Download the client

You can get involved by downloading and installing the software client from [email protected]—it’s currently available for Windows, Linux, Mac and Sony PlayStation 3—signing up and getting involved.

Join a team too. I recommend team ID 35947.

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 46 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Latterly, web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall. Currently on sabbatical. I am a priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, and I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir.

One thought on “Help scientists study diseases with [email protected]

  1. Good idea. Funny you should mention it – I’ve just got back interested in distributed computing again.

    For the record: [email protected] is just one of many projects running on the BOINC platform. So you can maximize your altruistic contribution by subscribing to and running several projects at once – the choice spans the fields of cosmology, medicine, environment/climate/weather, cracking encryption techniques, etc – then when one project is down or doesn’t have work for you, boinc will use your spare potential for something else while it waits.

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