What is Folding and Why Does it Matter?

Written by Ben Hardwidge

June 15, 2009 // 10:07 a.m.

Tags: #alzheimers #distributed-computing #folding #foldinghome #research #supercomputer

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Mass-scale computational protein folding simulation may be a new science, but it’s one that’s also seen an amazing number of advances in a short period of time. "In the first five years, we achieved the goal of understanding protein folding, at least for small proteins – proteins of the size that are relevant for Alzheimer’s disease," says Pande.

However, he adds, "I think in the next five years, we’ll have revealed some interesting therapeutics that could be used for Alzheimer’s. That’s something I’m very excited about, and it really wouldn’t be possible without all of the donors contributing computer time. I think we’re right on schedule for 2010 – our tenth anniversary – to really be able to show all the exciting things that we’ve been able to do."

With the potential for therapeutics for Alzheimer’s seemingly on the horizon, Folding@home is now a very powerful force in the field of medical research, and it’s all due to the people who contribute towards it. It doesn’t matter whether you have an aging Athlon XP or a Core i7 system with three GeForce GTX 285s – every processor helps. In fact, the classic CPU client is more useful than the high-performance GPU clients for Stanford, simply because so many people use them, which means they can gather a larger range of results. As an example, the original work for the Alzheimer’s paper was all performed on the classic CPU client, with follow-up simulations run on the classic, SMP and GPU clients.

Why fold?

"Everyone can make a contribution to the research, and your work units are all extremely valuable to the guys at Stanford. This is your chance to be a part of groundbreaking medical science and make your PC a component of the world’s most powerful supercomputer. You only need to download a small app to take part. Also, if you aren’t bothered about the competitive aspect of Folding@home, then we’re sure that Rosetta@home will appreciate having any spare CPU time you can give as well."

"Science outreach projects in schools rarely involve state-of-the-art science. It’s often stuff that you’ve simplified or made workable so that you can show a demonstration to laypeople. This isn’t Folding@home. Folding@home is a project in which people look at your simulations, with the results being published in ‘Nature’. It enables people around the world to participate in science, rather than just having scientists looking at computer screens in the lab, while also involving first-rate science."

- Martin Gruebele, professor of chemistry, physics, biophysics and computational biology at the University of Illinois

"The idea of using my spare hardware for a useful purpose seemed too good to be true, and the guys on the folding forum were so friendly and helpful that I thought I’d give it a go. Plus, the more you read about what we’re helping to achieve, the more you want to help. I’ve known many people with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and while it’s too late to help them, it would be good to find a cure to help the younger generations. I have a son, and I would love it if his generation didn’t need to worry about these illnesses."
- Simon Treadaway (aka saspro), folding for the Custom PC and bit-tech team

"I started folding when I found out that you could help to cure devastating diseases by just downloading a little program. It’s amazing that you can help just by using the spare power of your computer at your home or workplace. I also found that the points system keeps the competitive (and team) spirit going as well. Join the team and visit the friendly forums for tips and support – remember that every increase in PPD helps vital research and your ranking."
- Christopher Boden (aka PS3/LanDi), folding for the Custom PC and bit-tech team

"My other half works in the medical profession, and I have experience of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and cancer, so any minor contribution I can make to helping understand the mechanics of these diseases, by donating CPU and GPU time to Folding@home, I see as worthwhile. Plus, what better way is there to fully use the number-crunching capabilities of a monster machine? Being a competitive male and wanting to stay ahead in the charts might also be a factor, according to my wife!"
Jon Williams (aka DocJonz), folding for the Custom PC and bit-tech team

Some people fold because they care about what we’re doing in terms of trying to advance science for particular diseases, and we have a very strong track record in terms of performing calculations that are extremely important, useful and groundbreaking. Others might understand and appreciate that the computations are useful, but they’re especially interested in the competitive aspect of Folding@home. For that reason, Folding@home is interesting, as it’s one of the largest of such competitions. So many people have become a part of it, and you can be a part of it in so many different ways, not just on the PC – Windows, Linux or Mac – but also on both Nvidia and ATI GPUs and PS3s. It’s a unique competition experience.
Vijay Pande, Associate Professor in the Chemistry Department at Stanford University and head of Folding@home

If you're interesting in joining our Folding team, you can download the software from the official Folding site - just use team number 35947. For help and advice, check out our Folding forums and our massive guide to getting Folding up and running.