Big distributed computing projects such as SETI@Home, folding@home and “the BBC Climate Change Experiment” have been around for years. They utilise extra computing power when the computer is inactive to help find aliens, fold proteins or to run climate models to predict the effects of climate change.
Computer scientists have found a new way to help them understand how proteins fold – one of the central problems in biology. From The Economist:
Proteins are the building blocks of life inside cells; they are first made as long chains of molecules and work properly only after they have folded into their final shape. But understanding the rules of protein folding remains one of biology’s central problems.
The existing program uses trial and error, and pre-programmed mathematical rules that govern folding as understood today. But users of the screensaver told David Baker, a biochemist at the University of Washington and lead scientist on Rosetta@home, they could do better.
Players use their computers to fold proteins. The more chemically stable the folded protein becomes, the more points the players are awarded. In trials of the game hundreds of players were given 40 protein puzzles to solve (for the trials, the folding solutions were already known). Many of the best players were not scientists but were able to find the correct structure faster than computers.
It’s great to know that the power of the human brain can still beat a computer! So far the experiment has only been run using proteins for which the folding solutions were already known. The next step is to give players proteins for which solutions aren’t known – the players will then be taking part in some new cutting edge research!