PC gamers are being asked to donate some of their computing power to an international effort researching diseases including the novel coronavirus, as well as cancer and Alzheimer’s.
In addition to trying not to transmit the virus by regularly washing their hands and self-isolating if they show any symptoms, PC gamers can also contribute to cutting-edge research.
Simply by installing software which runs in the background of their computer while they continue to use it for other activities, the gamers could be helping develop a treatment for the virus.
The Folding@home (F@h) project is a distributed computing research programme which uses the idle resources of thousands of volunteers’ personal computers to simulate the molecular dynamics of protein folding.
Some of the most powerful equipment which normal people have to hand are graphics processing units (GPUs), a particular kind of computer chip designed for gaming.
GPUs are capable of performing a lot of simple mathematical operations very quickly, such as the many operations needed to simulate the complex environment inside human cells.
The simulations are necessary because protein folding is one of the most complicated areas in biology. The molecules fold into three-dimensional structures which determine chemical reactions in human cells, and by extension and in aggregate, therefore the whole human body.
Even though scientists have sequenced the entire human genome, which is the blueprint for all of the proteins in the human body, the sequence itself doesn’t explain how proteins take on a particular shape and perform their functions, whether as an enzyme or an antibody.
The Folding@home project, based in the Pande Lab at Stanford University, and led by Dr Greg Bowman, is investigating the implications of what happens when this folding goes wrong in diseases ranging from cancer and diabetes to Alzheimer’s, and now COVID-19.
In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, when proteins misfold then they can clump together and collect in the brain, from where they are believed to cause the symptoms of the disease.
Some of the computations which gaming GPUs will be working on include simulating the different ways in which the proteins can fold, potentially revealing key structural information about them which new medicines can treat.
Proteins are also essential to the functioning of many viruses, including Ebola and the Zika virus.
The researchers are aiming to examine how specific proteins in the coronavirus would be disrupted, potentially preventing the virus from replicating within the human body.
Contributing isn’t limited to those with powerful PCs either, according to a community announcement shared with gamers on a Reddit forum.
“Everyone, no matter the hardware they possess, has a chance to help the research for, and, perhaps, make a big difference in the life of other people,” the post said.
“Who knows if we ourselves, or our children won’t benefit from these researches? Every little bit can help! It’s effectively making it so scientists get faster access to information.”