In modern times, the advent of more intelligent computing technology means that processing power can be used to help with scientific research.
That research involves using simulations to analyse the make-up of proteins in the human body and how they "fold".
Misfolding proteins are often the cause for diseases likes Alzheimer’s, Parkinson's, various types of cancer, ALS and more.
Using technology to research these proteins allows scientists to more efficiently and more quickly develop drugs to help combat the issues.
This is particularly relevant at the moment with the Coronavirus pandemic.
The good news is, you can help with this and doing so is really simple too. All you need to do is get involved with Folding@home.
What is Folding@home?
Folding@home is a distributed computing project run by Stanford University. The aim of the project is to examine how proteins fold and it does this using spare computing power.
We first wrote about folding@home in 2007, but with rising concern about coronavirus - and confirmation of the project's involvement in researching COVID-19 - now is a great time to revisit this project and lend some support.
How does Folding@home work?
The idea behind the project is around shared computing power.
Lots of people have computers and a lot of the time those computers aren't doing anything - they're just sitting around with spare computational power. Folding@home takes advantage of that spare power to put it to a good cause - researching various diseases.
It's a very technical thing - both in terms of how a distributed computing project works and investigating folding proteins, but fortunately, you don't have to understand either of those things to lend your support, because it all happens in the background.
The idea is that when there are millions of computers doing a little bit of work in the background, the project will have greater computational power at its disposal, which is a great benefit to researchers.
To help, you just need to download the software to your computer and set it to run. The program then downloads "work units" and processes them to send the data back.
Generally, you'll still find you're able to use your computer as you normally would without any hassle, but while you work, play, stream or browse, you'll be helping fight disease.
How to start using Folding@home
All you have to do is head over to the folding@home website and you can download the software for whatever platform you're on. You'll install a small programme that will connect to the back to the project and then start churning data.
You can download Folding@home for Windows, Mac or Linux machines, so whatever you're using it's easy to get started.
It's also free to download, so it'll cost you nothing to do your part.
The installation process is really simple though. Download the software, install it, set up an identity and start folding.
You can open Folding@home in a browser to see how you're doing. You also have the option to adjust how much processing power the software is using. If you're not using your computer you could set it to "full" to do the most work or "light" if you're doing something more intensive and need to dial back the folding for a bit.
What are the benefits of Folding@home?
The benefits of Folding@home are fairly straightforward. With very little technical knowledge you can set up your computer to help find cures for disease.
The more people that get involved, the more processing power there is to simulate the protein folding and the faster the results will be achieved.
This system also means that the organisation doesn't need to pay for supercomputers as everyone around the world is lending a hand.
How to choose a project
When running Folding@home, it is possible to choose a project. This means you can dedicate your processing power to support fighting a particular disease. You can choose from Alzheimer's, Cancer, Huntington's, Parkinson's or any disease.
There is no current way to select Coronavirus as a disease to fight, but the team has said selecting any disease will still help with the research into the pandemic.
What are Folding@home points for?
When you starting using the software you'll see you'll slowly accumulate points. These points are designed to encourage friendly competition between you, your friends and other people online.
Points are calculated based on the work units you complete and the points vary depending on the complexity of those work units. Some of the work involves studying small proteins, others are on more complex proteins and so the points awarded will varying depending on that.
You can also join a team in order to help climb a stats ladder to compete for the position of the best team. The stats of the teams are viewable here. Though you don't need to join a team and can fold anonymously if you'd prefer.
How to join a team
If you'd rather be part of a group effort, you can join a team easily from the web control interface that opens in a browser.
Under "I'm folding as" you'll find a link to "change identity". If you click that you'll see a pop-up that lets you choose a name and a team.
To join a team you need to know the team's number. You can find the team numbers from the stats page.
Alternatively, you can create your own team by filling out this simple form. Once you've set your team up, make a note of the number and get your friends to join in too to help do their part.
Is Folding@home safe?
Folding@home is designed to be safe. It's been carefully tested and the servers for it are behind high-security firewalls to keep everything safe and secure. You won't have any problems running this software on your computer.
Folding@home vs COVID-19
The folding@home team has confirmed that it is supporting researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City to develop treatments for COVID-19. As part of an open science approach, findings are shared with other researchers, with the global goal of developing drugs or therapies to combat the coronavirus.
This video shows the Folding@home simulations of the COVID-19 protein. It's this sort of simulation that helps researchers understand what's happening with the proteins and how they're infecting human cells.
That data could then be used to develop ways to block the virus in the first place.
The worldwide issues with COVID-19 has lead to more and more people using Folding@home. That, in turn, has lead to a massive increase in processing power for the project. The project has now broken the exaFLOP barrier meaning it's more powerful than even the most powerful supercomputer. This also means it's carrying out over 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 operations per second.
Dr Greg Bowman has recently revealed that the number of people folding has reached almost five times the amount as the number before the pandemic outbreak.
What are you waiting for? Download the software and do your bit too.