Folding@home scientists report first distributed computing success

As you read this sentence, millions of personal computers around the world are working overtime performing complex computations on their screensavers in the name of science. This growing Internet phenomenon, known as "distributed computing," is being used for everything from the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) to the design of new therapeutic drugs.

Now, for the first time, a distributed computing experiment has produced significant results that have been published in a scientific journal. Writing in the advanced online edition of Nature magazine, Stanford University scientists Christopher D. Snow and Vijay S. Pande describe how they with the help of 30,000 personal computers successfully simulated part of the complex folding process that a typical protein molecule undergoes to achieve its unique, three-dimensional shape. Their findings were confirmed in the laboratory of Houbi Nguyen and Martin Gruebele scientists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who co-authored the Nature study.

Understanding disease

Every protein molecule consists of a chain of amino acids that must assume a specific three-dimensional shape to function normally.

"The process of protein folding remains a mystery," said Pande, assistant professor of chemistry and of structural biology at Stanford. "When proteins misfold, they sometimes clump together, forming aggregates in the brain that have been observed in patients with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other diseases."

How proteins fold into their ideal conformation is a question that has tantalized scientists for decades. To solve the problem, researchers have turned to computer simulation a process that requires an enormous amount of computing power.

"One reason that protein folding is so difficult to simulate is that it occurs amazingly fast," Pande explained. "Small proteins have been shown to fold in a timescale of microseconds [millionths of a second], but

Contact: Mark Shwartz
Stanford University

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