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Saturday, August 2, 2008

Folding @ Home Explained

Someone asked on another forum, "What is the protein folding project?", and I'm reproducing my response here.

It's a "distributed computation" project, like SETI (remember that?). These protein folding calculations were broken down into a bunch of small bits that people can calculate in their spare CPU cycles. The results are then combined.

A protein is actually a string of amino acids. Due to chemistry, these proteins "fold" into a 3-dimensional shape. Did you notice that your body is 3-dimensional instead of one long protein string? The reason is "protein folding". By calculating a lot of protein folding patterns, new drugs and other treatments may be discovered. The actual biological properties of the protein depend on how it folds into a 3-dimensional shape.

Instead of paying for a supercomputer cluster, the researchers on the folding project have convinced people to contribute their spare CPU cycles to the project. With sufficiently many participants, this is *MORE PRODUCTIVE* than an actual supercomputing cluster. Any "interesting" results can be re-calculated by the researchers themselves.

The Internet makes such "distributed calculation" projects feasible.

It's been turned into a game, by awarding people points for participating. Instead of rewarding individual users, teams are rewarded as well. Various websites now have "protein folding teams".

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