For those of you stuck at home during the COVID-19 outbreak, the situation may feel a little hopeless, as you are relegated to sitting down and waiting for a treatment to develop. At this moment, you’re probably reading this article from a computer, one which isn’t fully using all of its resources. Perhaps the best way to help in the effort of combating COVID-19 would be to put your computer to use in determining how the virus’s proteins work so that an effective treatment can be developed. If you’re interested in this, an old but brilliant project named Folding@home wants your help!
Folding@home is named after the process of proteins folding in organic cells. However, when they fold incorrectly, it can create problems that could be harmful to human life. In most cases, understanding the biological agents that cause the diseases we all dread involves studying their protein folding processes to develop treatments that target the cells we want to eliminate without causing harm to the rest of the organism we’re trying to cure.
For 19 years, Folding@home has assisted in medical research by using the computers of everyday individuals and partner organizations to help simulate protein processes. This is done by dividing the entire workload of the simulation into bite-sized packages and sending each package to a computer connected to the network to process. By doing this, thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of computers can work in harmony to help solve a specific problem.
Where Does COVID-19 Come In?
Folding@home is currently engaged in a special project assisting with COVID-19 research, as is visible on their website. At this moment, the developers in charge of the project are calling on people with spare computing power to help aid their research efforts and simulate the way the virus’s proteins work.
Because so many volunteers have already stepped up to donate their computing power, you may experience some idle time before a work unit is assigned to your computer.
How Does Folding@home Work?
If you want to participate in assisting with Folding@home’s research efforts, simply download their application and install it. After installation, click the Folding@home icon in your task bar and then click “Web Control.” This will open a browser window that offers simple control over your application. You can set a name to identify yourself with and keep track of your progress.
By default, your client will probably be using your CPU. If you possess a powerful GPU and want to donate its resources, you’ll have to go into advanced control settings. Do this by clicking on “Advanced Control” in the same menu mentioned earlier and clicking “Configure.”
In the “slots” tab, edit the slot occupied by your CPU and replace it with GPU. In most computers, the “gpu-index” value can be left at “-1.” If you’re having trouble getting the client to recognize your GPU, try using “0” as a value for “gpu-index.” This automatically puts your first GPU as the one processing the work units. You can always configure another GPU for it if you have multiple ones on your system.
Applications like these will consume a significant amount of your computer’s resources, so you should only process work units when you’re not using your computer for other intense work (such as graphics editing or gaming). You can always pause the folding project and continue it later and even have your computer stop folding as soon as it’s done with currently assigned units.
Does this Actually Help the Effort?
Using a bunch of computers to process work units that may or may not reveal usable insights into the workings of viral proteins might seem like something unspectacular, but it has historically assisted professionals in determining pathways for treatment of illnesses.
On February 10, 2020, some of the researchers using the Folding@home project published a paper revealing that the essential VP35 protein in the Ebola virus has a small hidden pathway that could receive a treatment. This provided a small but important leap in the understanding of the disease that leads to an improved ability to combat it.
All these simulations help uncover microscopic hidden pockets in diseases that may prove essential in removing a disease. This doesn’t change for COVID-19. However small your computing power may be, it plays a role in a greater project that will eventually help medical professionals understand how this disease can be fought.
Now that we have the technology to help us understand the world we live in, from the microscopic dimension of viruses to the vast stretches of the universe, our small contributions to research efforts will help illuminate paths to solutions we’ve previously struggled to realize.
If you have questions relating to getting Folding@home up and running, feel free to leave a comment, and you’ll find some help along the way!