It would have taken a single PC more than 14,000 years to analyze the many ways human proteins can fold into shapes that promote, or interfere with, health. That analysis is 75 percent complete – in only nine months - thanks to the combined work of 133,673 computers.
The World Community Grid announced last year that it would run research for the Human Proteome Folding Project. The project seeks to shed light on common diseases and possible cures by studying the way proteins function. The information is a crucial step in understanding and curing diseases like cancer, HIV, Alzheimer's and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
Robin Willner, director of corporate community relations for IBM, said the first database will be available on the Internet by October. All of the material is expected to be posted by the end of the year.
"It's not linear since we pick up new members everyday and finish the work faster," Willner said in an interview Friday.
IBM donated hardware, software, technical services and expertise to support the grid, but anyone with Internet access can download a free and secure software program to donate power and time. The project runs in the background of PCs. It is similar to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence SETI.
The Proteome Project is analyzing 20 types of amino acids that join together in various combinations to make up human proteins. Those proteins fold into different shapes, which scientists believe allow them to perform different functions that can promote, or interfere with, healthy cell function. For example, bacterial and viral proteins can fold into shapes that allow them to penetrate the cell membrane and infect the cell.
There is a massive amount of data that can identify how the proteins function, but it's a daunting task to analyze all of the material.
People who donate computer power to the Proteome Project can see snapshots of partially folded proteins as their computers work. The computer program, Rosetta, displays scores how well the protein is packed together. It also provides PC owners with information on whether a combination of amino acids is well-matched.
The World Community Grid performs that process millions of times for each protein.
Rosetta sends assignments and receives results over the Internet. Since it is ranked as the lowest priority on a computer, users don't have to worry about it interfering with other work, Willner said. Users can adjust the settings so the program only runs when a screen saver is on.
Several universities, including Marist College, the State University of New York at New Paltz and the University of Kentucky are participating. Signs in campus computer labs encourage students to download the grid onto their personal computers. So far, 83,457 members have signed up, contributing to a system that IBM says may be among the 20 largest "computers" in the world.
IBM plans to team up with other groups to continue the humanitarian work using as many of the world's 650 million underutilized PCs as possible. Some possible areas of study include: environmental research and climate control.
"Our goal is to eventually have five or six projects running all at once," Willner said.