By Dan Klasel
Union Springs is a nice place, but there’s nothing to do in this town. I’ve heard it repeatedly since we moved here a year ago.
Last night, while we binged on Netflix shows, my office computer went to work modeling the multiple ways in which proteins interact in our bodies.
You see, we loaded our computers with a research software, linking us to Folding@Home.org.
Their website explains they run “simulations of proteins, the molecular machines that perform most of the active processes we associate with life, from muscle contraction to sensing light and digesting food.
We exploit the biological insight these simulations provide to inform drug discovery and other efforts to combat global health threats.”
Even though it’s made up of volunteers, Folding@home is one of the world's fastest computing systems. Computers work by performing Floating-point operations.
Their speed is measured in how many floating -point operations they can perform in a second, or FLOPS.
The Playstation 5 runs about 5 teraflops, or five Trillion operations a second. In April of 2020 the Folding@Home system achieved a speed of 2.43 exaflops, or the equivalent of 486 million PlayStations, becoming the world’s largest supercomputer.
A very small part of it is here quietly griding away, in Union Springs.
You may wonder what makes this newsworthy. This level of performance has allowed researchers to run extremely difficult atomic-level simulations of protein folding thousands of times longer than formerly achieved.
Diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis, BSE (Mad Cow disease), an inherited form of emphysema, and even many cancers are believed to result from protein misfolding.
When proteins misfold, they can clump together (“aggregate”). These clumps can often gather in the brain, where they are believed to cause the symptoms of Mad Cow or Alzheimer’s disease.
In 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 battle scientists at Bowman Lab within Washington University in St. Louis published an image of the proteins in their manuscript “SARS-CoV-2 Simulations Go Exascale to Capture Spike Opening and Reveal Cryptic Pockets Across the Proteome”.
In the Abstract the authors outlined the difficulties of modeling that point at which the “spikes” of the virus open and close to avoid the body’s immune response.
They stated “To address this challenge, over a million citizen scientists banded together through the Folding@home distributed computing project to create the first exascale computer and simulate an unprecedented 0.1 seconds of the viral proteome. Our simulations capture dramatic opening of the apo Spike complex, far beyond that seen experimentally.”.
A million computers, located in bedrooms, empty office and living rooms came together to model the folding of proteins on the surface of the Covid-19 virus.
The system worked so well they were able to model the moment each spike would fold, or close in order to avoid detection.
Over the last twenty plus years, idle computers have contributed to treatments for Breast Cancer, Kidney Cancer, Chagas Disease, Covid and scores more. Think what your idle computer could be doing tonight.
Folding@home.org is one of many options, but if you chose it, consider joining team number 1063502. I’ve named the team “Union Springs 36089”.
Show the world that Union Springs does have things going on, albeit quietly.