The long-running Folding@Home program to crowdsource the enormously intricate task of resolving molecular interactions has actually struck a significant turning point as countless new users sign up to put their computer systems to work. The network now consists of an “exaflop” of computing power: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 operations per second.
Folding@Home began some 20 years earlier as a method– then unique, and originated by the now-hibernating SETI@Home– to separate computation-heavy issues and parcel them out to people for execution. It amounts to a crude supercomputer dispersed over the globe, and while it’s not as reliable as a “real” supercomputer in blasting through calculations, it can finish complex problems.
The problem in question being addressed by this tool (administrated by a group at Washington University in St. Louis) is that of protein folding. Proteins are one of the many chemical structures that make our biology work, and they vary from small, reasonably well-understood particles to truly huge ones.
The important things about proteins is that they alter their shape depending on the conditions– temperature level, pH, the presence or absence of other particles. This change in shape is frequently what makes them beneficial– for example, a kinesin protein alters shape like a pair of legs taking actions to bring a payload across a cell. Another protein like an ion channel will open to let charged atoms through only if another protein is present, which fits into it like a key in a lock.
Some such changes, or convolutions, are well-documented, however the majority of by far are absolutely unidentified. Through robust simulation of the particles and their surroundings we can find brand-new info about proteins that may lead to essential discoveries. For example, what if you could reveal that when that ion channel is open, another protein could lock it that way for longer than normal, or close it quickly? Discovering those type of chances is what this sort of molecular science is all about.
Unfortunately it’s likewise very computation-expensive. These inter- and intra-molecular interactions are the kind of thing supercomputers can grind away at constantly to cover every possibility. Twenty years ago supercomputers were a lot rarer than they are today, so Folding@Home started as a way to do this sort of heavy computing load without purchasing a $500 million Cray setup.
The program has been downing along the whole time, and most likely got a boost when SETI@Home advised it as an alternative to its lots of users. But the coronavirus crisis has actually made the idea of contributing one’s resources to a greater cause extremely appealing, and as such there has actually been a substantial increase in users– a lot so that the servers are struggling to get issues out to everyone’s computers to solve.
The turning point it’s celebrating is the achievement of an exaflop of processing power, which is I believe a sextillion (a billion billion) operations per second. An operation is a rational operation, like AND or NOR, and numerous of them together form mathematical expressions, which eventually amount to beneficial stuff like saying “at temperature levels above 38 degrees Celsius this protein deforms to allow a drug to bind at this website and disable it.”
Exascale computing is the next goal of supercomputers; Intel and Cray are building exascale computer systems for the National Laboratories that are expected to come online in the next couple of years– however the fastest supercomputers readily available today operate at a scale of hundreds of petaflops, or about half to a 3rd the speed as an exaflop.
Naturally these 2 things are not straight comparable– Folding@Home is marshaling an exaflop’s worth of calculating power, however it is not running as a single unit dealing with a single problem, as the exascale systems are developed to The exa- label is there to give a sense of scale.
Will this kind of analysis lead to coronavirus treatments?
COVID-19(like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS and others) isn’t a single problem, but a big, poorly bounded set of unknowns; its proteome and associated interactions are part of that set. The point isn’t to stumble onto a magic bullet but to lay a foundation for understanding so that when we are examining potential solutions, we can select the ideal one even 1?ster because we understand that this particle in that situation acts like so
As the project kept in mind in a post revealing the release of coronavirus-related work:
This preliminary wave of tasks concentrates on better understanding how these coronaviruses engage with the human ACE2 receptor required for viral entry into human host cells, and how scientists may be able to disrupt them through the design of new healing antibodies or small particles that may disrupt their interaction.
If you wish to assist, you can download the Folding@Home customer and contribute your spare CPU and GPU cycles to the cause.