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Forgot SETI@Home, this is where you should dedicate your extra CPU cycles

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Image credit: Eurogamer

SETI (The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) @Home has long been resident on many expensive PCs, run by gamers and hardware freaks to show off their PC's oomph to anyone who cared to look or listen. Similar projects have emerged, including one to crack a useless form of encryption amongst other things. However, Stanford University in the USA has now started its own project, and it's gathering speed. The project is called Folding @Home. "Folding" is about trying to understand how proteins self-assemble (protein-folding). As the website says, it's the "holy grail of modern molecular biophysics." The challenge is to computationally simulate protein folding, something that would require more CPU power than the whole of the world put together. Or at least, that's the plan! The Folding group has developed a new way to simulate protein folding ("distributed dynamics") which should remove the previous barriers to simulating protein folding. "We have already demonstrated that our distributed dynamics technique can fold small protein fragments and protein-like synthetic polymers. The next step is to apply these methods to larger, considerably more important and complicated proteins. Unfortunately, larger proteins fold slower and thus we need more computers to simulate their folding. While the alpha helix folds in 100 nanoseconds, proteins just a little larger fold 100x slower (10 microseconds). Thus, while 10-100 processors were enough to simulate the helix, we will need many more to simulate these larger, more interesting proteins. "To achieve a significant speedup, we need lots of processors in a given run. Also, since a single run does not tell us much, we need to simulate several runs (10 runs would be a good start) per protein. Thus, we need lots of processors. By running our client that uses the Mithral CS-SDK, you can lend us your machine for as long as you like. The client allows you to run for as little or as long as you like. Even a single day's worth of running is helpful to us." The Science behind it all is very complex, but understanding what you could help achieve by taking part is not. The discovery of how proteins self-assemble could lead to more advanced research into Mad Cow, Altzheimer's and more diseases, it could help man build nanomachines and more. The benefits of finding out how Folding works far outweigh the benefits of discovering whether amoeba on Saturn can run traceroute! You can discover more about Folding @Home on its homepage at Stanford University, and download the client for any flavour of Windows, Linux or Solaris. If you generally leave your PC on through the night doing nothing much, would it hurt to contribute?

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