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Computing Structural Biology

By Emily Carlson
Posted April 2007

In high school, Johnathon Tinsley had mixed feelings about math and science. "Math was very challenging," he recalls. "I enjoyed some parts of biology, but not physics."

While you're sleeping, your computer could be doing scientific research.
While you're sleeping, your computer could be doing scientific research.

This British teenager helped find cures for diseases like AIDS and Alzheimer's just by letting researchers use his computer when he wasn't. You can get involved, too!

Tinsley is part of a tech trend called distributed computing that relies on the public to help advance health and medicine. Through this approach, researchers harness the power of personal computers to answer important questions about biology. The typical computers in a scientist's lab can't perform all of the required number crunching, but a network of hundreds and even thousands of personal computers can.

How It Works

You join a distributed computing network by downloading free software. When your computer isn't busy, it sends a message to a server in the researcher's lab basically saying, "Hey, I'm available. Can I help?" The server assigns a chunk of a large calculation that it knows the home computer can solve. The donated computer may spend several days working out the problem. When it's done, it hands in the answer. Just like teachers, people in the lab check the result, also making sure that no one has tampered with the information.

You can volunteer your computer, whatever the make or model. The computer must be connected to the Internet—the type of connection doesn't matter. Older computers can do the job, although they generally get simpler calculations. You can also choose how much computer memory you want to donate.

You don't need to worry about hackers breaking into your computer system. Security checks protecting the main servers and the limited capabilities of the required software make participating in the projects considerably safer than surfing the Internet.

Before you download distributed computing software onto a public computer, like the ones at school or work, ask if it's OK. If you don't, you could get into serious trouble!

If you visit the Web sites of distributed computing projects, you'll likely find computerese. Here's a brief glossary.

DCDistributed computing
@homeMost likely a distributed computing project
CreditPoints received for solving a calculation
Work UnitProblem sent to a donated computer
BOINCThe Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, or the free software program used by many DC projects
PCPersonal computer
ServerComputer that sends information to other computers in a network

Distributed Computing in Action

"The science we can do is unmatched by what we could do with any other available tools," says Vijay Pande, a scientist at Stanford University in California who started a distributed computing project called Folding@Home.

Pande studies the dynamics of how proteins fold into their unique shapes. By studying how they fold, Pande can see what goes wrong and how drugs might patch misfolded proteins.

Proteins fold much faster than you can fold a shirt. The quickest one is done in just 5 millionths of a second.

Pande says that it would take a very fast desktop computer more than a thousand years to completely simulate the process! But with the help of nearly 250,000 personal computers and more than 1 million PlayStation® 3 gaming consoles, Pande can do the job in less than a week.

Tinsley donated about 40 hours of processing time every day between his two computers. He liked knowing that his computers were doing something useful. Tinsley says, "They're not just sitting there like stuffed lemons"—British slang for being idle.

For his distributed computing projects, Tinsley tracked how much work his computer contributed compared to others'. If his computer helped predict a protein structure, he saw his name on the project's Web site and maybe even published in a scientific journal. Some projects also would award special certificates.

"Seeing the impact makes a big difference," says Pande. "When you donate to many charities, you don't see a direct link between what you give and how it's used. For us, you can actually see what your computer has donated and the results."

Serving science, though, is not the only benefit. Distributing computing also offers its participants an active social network. Many projects have message boards where donors can post questions about the science or random thoughts about life.

Donors who really want to be ranked at the top often will form competitive teams.

"I like competing to get my stats above my team members'," says Tinsley. But he has enjoyed the social aspect. For one team, he explains, "The main aim is to meet and talk with friends and do something good and worthwhile while we're at it."

Learn about related research

This page last reviewed on April 22, 2011