Interesting times at the moment. You may have read my piece a few weeks ago about how I think it’s irresponsible to do data analysis on the coronavirus situation unless you have sufficient domain knowledge and enough empathy to understand the impact of what you find. But this doesn’t mean that we make like we’re at the Winchester and wait for it all to blow over. There are some things we can do.
One major area of research into diseases is to see how protein ‘folds’ into various shapes, so that they can function as enzymes, antibodies, and so on. This is all chemical biology that is way outside my area of expertise, but I understand that when proteins fold incorrectly somehow, some diseases can occur. Horrible diseases like Alzheimer’s or cystic fibrosis. Understanding protein folding can also lead to knowing more about how viruses use proteins against our immune systems… you can read more about all this at https://foldingathome.org/covid19/
The thing is that to understand protein folding better, tonnes of simulations need to be run. And this takes processing power that research labs simply don’t have enough of.
And this is where you and I come in.
I remember when Jim Gray went missing. I was in the US, working on a project for Microsoft, when news came in that his boat had gone missing. Within a few days, satellite images became available, and people (including me) would look through them for anything that might have been worth investigating. I trawled through hundreds of images hoping that someone somewhere might find some sign of him before it was too late. We never did and he was declared dead five years later. But seeing people all over the world come together to assist in a project like this was remarkable. And practical too. The SETI project, in which people listen to radio signals hoping to find extra-terrestrial intelligence doesn’t seem as practical to me as trying to find a person who has gone missing.
Or to help find a cure for diseases which are ravaging our population.
And so I downloaded the Folding @ Home software from foldingathome.org, ran the software, and joined a team. I even spun up an old machine I wasn’t using, so that it could help too. Now, processing power that I’m not using is running these simulations and it might bring researchers closer to finding cures for some of these things. And because of other processing power I have available, Kelly Broekstra has also put me onto DreamLab (that’s iOS, try here for Android), which is a phone-based system that’s similar. Now when I’m not using my iPhone but near a power supply (like when I’m sleeping), I run this app and let it crunch numbers. The screen dims about ten seconds after I tell it to start, which reassures me that I’m not burning the screen out.
This is a small thing. There are plenty of bigger things that we could all do, but it’s also very simple to do this small thing, and it could become a very big thing if a lot of us do it.
Thank you Glenn and Kelly for putting me onto this. I hope everyone who gets involved stays involved long after COVID-19 has disappeared from society, because it seems this can really help researchers into some of the most horrible diseases out there.