So You Want to be a Scientist? – by Shake

But I’m not a molecular biologist!

I don’t even play one on TV, nor do I own a supercomputer. Neither do you? That’s fine, you don’t need one to be part of the Folding@home project.

Folding@home is a distributed computing project run by the Pande Group at Stanford University’s Chemistry department. It is a nonprofit organization dedicated to science research and education. Data is shared with others and over 50 academic papers have already been written discussing the results of the project.

For anyone not familiar with the term ‘distributed computing’, it’s being able to put hundreds of thousands of processors (far more than the roughly 5,000 processors found in a typical supercomputer) to work on a very large, complex problem such as protein folding, the focus of this project.

From their FAQ:

Proteins are necklaces of amino acids — long chain molecules. Proteins are the basis of how biology gets things done. As enzymes, they are the driving force behind all of the biochemical reactions which make biology work. As structural elements, they are the main constituent of our bones, muscles, hair, skin and blood vessels. As antibodies, they recognize invading elements and allow the immune system to get rid of the unwanted invaders. For these reasons, scientists have sequenced the human genome — the blueprint for all of the proteins in biology — but how can we understand what these proteins do and how they work?

However, only knowing this sequence tells us little about what the protein does and how it does it. In order to carry out their function (eg as enzymes or antibodies), they must take on a particular shape, also known as a “fold.” Thus, proteins are truly amazing machines: before they do their work, they assemble themselves! This self-assembly is called “folding.”

What happens if proteins don’t fold correctly? Diseases such as Alzheimer’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.

To get involved and help towards better understanding of these diseases, all you need to do is download a small piece of software, and install it on your computer. Download and setup takes only a couple of minutes and then you’re off and folding! The software uses spare CPU cycles and runs in the background at whatever priority level you set, so it won’t interrupt your other work.

Points are awarded to you under your username and they’ll count toward your team total if you’re part of a team. I fold for The Godless Ones (team #34395). There are teams out there representing companies (such as Microsoft, who we passed last year), universities, websites (like Fark), and all sort of others. Points are based on the size of each work unit (WU) which you complete as well as how long it takes you to complete each one. This site handles statistics for 3,000 teams and over 600,000 individuals. Our team is currently ranked 218th.

So what are you waiting for? Get folding!

Current message board F@H teams:
If your forum doesn’t have a Folding team, why not start one?
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