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Folding@home invites people to share processors to combat coronavirus

In the 1990s, people could donate their spare computing in a distributed project to find aliens. Now distributed simulations are tackling the Covid-19 pandemic

A new project at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)’s Hartree Centre Daresbury Laboratory aims to use home computers to help tackle the Covid-19 coronavirus.

The Folding@home project, led by the Washington University School of Medicine, is encouraging people to lend any unused background capacity from their personal computers to power simulations that researchers can use to better understand how proteins behave.

Proteins are essential for human life, but are also used by viruses to suppress people’s immune systems and reproduce themselves. 

The project brings together a community of “citizen scientists” who are volunteering to run simulations of protein dynamics on their personal computers, with insights from this work helping scientists to better understand protein interactions, providing new opportunities to develop therapeutics.

The researchers hope the simulations will enable them to identify potential treatments. According to STFC Hartree Centre, although there are many experimental methods for determining protein structures, these only reveal a single snapshot of a protein’s usual shape. Seeing a protein in action could be key to identifying drugs already in existence that could potentially treat or disrupt the coronavirus.

STFC’s Hartree Centre, located at Sci-Tech Daresbury in the Liverpool City Region, is providing its supercomputing capabilities to help design and generate potential drugs at speed, enabling them to be distributed more quickly across the network of thousands of Folding@home users and, most importantly, get results more quickly.

Alison Kennedy, director of the STFC Hartree Centre, said: “We have a hugely powerful supercomputing capability at our disposal here at the Hartree Centre, so our staff were naturally looking for opportunities to contribute to global computational efforts to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The way this project works is to take a possible compound and use computer simulations to see how it interacts with the virus. It’s not a way to provide a vaccine, but if suitable antiviral compounds are identified, it could help to treat patients who have contracted the virus, which could help them to get better more quickly and reduce the burden on critical healthcare services.”

Through the global network of personal computers in the Folding@home project, the  STFC Hartree Centre said it can now run mass simulations, on an unprecedented scale, of how proteins fold and interact with potential drugs to treat the coronavirus. 

Anyone with a personal computer can contribute directly to the project by downloading the Folding@home software. Downloads are available for 32-bit and 64-bit Windows, MacOS, Ubuntu, Fedora, Mint, Centos and Red Hat Linux distributions. VMware has also created a VMware appliance for running Folding@home.

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