It used to be a common belief that humans only use 10 percent of their brains. This led many to wonder what would happen if all of the brain were to be used. Certainly, one could achieve mental feats previously considered impossible. Of course, this belief turned out to be a myth. However, we certainly don’t use all of the computing power we have available 100% of the time. If you’re reading this on a computer right now, chances are it has computing power that isn’t being used. So, what if we put that spare computing power to use? All of this previously unused power could do a lot. This is the central idea behind programs like [email protected]
[email protected] is a distributed computing project—i.e. it uses the combined computing power of many, many computers to perform a certain task. Here, the task is protein folding.
Protein folding is the folding of proteins into complex, 3-dimensional structures. Proteins that consist of the same sequence of amino acids, but are folded differently, will function differently. As proteins are the basis of biological processes, protein folding is extremely important. However, proteins don’t perfectly fold every time. At times, a protein will become folded incorrectly, causing it to essentially malfunction. It is believed that this misfolding is the root of many diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and even several forms of cancer. Viruses have proteins as well, which they use to inject their genetic material into cells, causing disease. Understanding the structure and folding patterns of these proteins helps greatly in designing antiviral medicines and treatments.
However, it is difficult to predict the way proteins can fold by simply looking at its molecular structure. A fitting analogy is a football game. Looking at the lineup before the snap is like looking at the molecular structure of the protein. It contains valuable information, but it is difficult to derive the locations of each player after the snap. It is similar for the protein: if one simply looks at its molecular structure, important information can be obtained. However, in order to see all possible states, a great amount of computational power is needed, hence the need for [email protected]
So, you might ask, why not just use a supercomputer? Wouldn’t that be easier? Well, not really. The limiting factor here is cost: in order to rent enough supercomputers to match the combined computing power that this project has achieved, a great amount of money must be spent. Further, the total computing power of the [email protected] project far exceeds the most powerful supercomputer. The most powerful supercomputer (IBM Summit) has a peak of 200 thousand TeraFLOPS (a measure of computing power), while [email protected] has over 2 million TeraFLOPS as of April 10, 2020—a number that is rapidly growing as more users join.
In order to run [email protected], simply visit their download page and download the program. You can then use either the online client, or the application itself (which is called FAHControl). You can control how much computing power to give it, but it won’t compete for computing power if you’re already using all of it—unless you tell it to. You can choose to run it only when your computer is idle, or 24/7.
In conclusion, if you’ve ever wanted to do something for the benefit of humanity, but really didn’t feel like getting out of your couch, [email protected] is for you—all you need is a computer. Happy folding!