A group of chemists and molecular biologists has just completed a landmark study carried out entirely on stolen computer time. Vijay Pande of Stanford University and his colleagues enlisted 25,000 PC owners to install a program that conducts calculations while their machines are not in use. The widely distributed PCs function as a virtual supercomputer dedicated to solving how protein molecules fold, a complex process that influences much of the chemical activity in the body. In a follow-up, Pande confirmed that the results agree with equivalent studies done by onerous hands-on techniques.
The Stanford project, called folding@home, uses the program to access data over the Internet, process the data, and send the results back. This technique was pioneered by researchers searching for radio signals from alien civilizations—but that effort, of course, has not yet yielded anything conclusive. Over six months, folding@home logged one million days of computing time; it has since expanded to 90,000 PCs. The first result was the decoding of a simple protein having a common and biologically important fold. Pande has since simulated the folding of five other molecules, including components of the AIDS virus. He says future screen-saver computations could help explain protein-misfolding diseases such as Alzheimer's and guide the design of new drugs.