How a global computing project is fighting Covid-19 – and what we’re doing to help

Led by the Washington University School of Medicine, the Folding@home project unites thousands of computer owners globally to fight Covid-19 – and we at Third Light are proud to be part of it.

A consortium of research institutions – plus a global army of volunteer moderators, translators, guides and developers – stepped in to form Folding@home, establishing a global network of computer space ‘borrowed’ from anyone who volunteers it. The shared mission: to simulate and map diseases.

What is folding?

Proteins play a huge variety of roles in the human body. From bone and muscle to hair, skin and blood vessels, they form our entire being. They also trigger all the chemical reactions in our systems – as enzymes, for example, they drive digestion and metabolism; as antibodies they protect the body from invasive elements. Viruses such as Ebola or swine flu are also made of protein.

Depending on what job a protein has to do, it assumes a specific shape – called ‘folding’ – with multiple moving parts assembling themselves into the related structure. It is believed that proteins, when folded incorrectly, can cause certain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cystic fibrosis and certain kinds of cancer.

Scientists can now use computers to map out and simulate how these foldings and mis-foldings can take place. When examining proteins that have taken the form of viruses, they can track these simulations and identify weaknesses, gaps and potential strategies for therapy to treat those viruses. You can learn more by watching this video:

The power of collaboration

The incredible sophistication of these simulations takes a lot of computing power – more than any supercomputer could supply. But thanks to modern network connections, a computer doesn’t have to exist in one location to do its job. This isn’t just a question of huge commercial servers like ours; even a desktop computer can be volunteered since it can be configured to perform valuable protein folding whenever its processors are not in use.

At the end of 2019, 30,000 contributors were volunteering their combined computer capacity to power simulations of a multitude of life-threatening diseases. When Covid-19 struck globally, the mission ramped up beyond anyone’s expectations. It’s estimated that this 30,000 is now well over 400,000. Over 126 Covid-19 projects have been launched, with 12 already ready for analysis.

We’ve assigned 100 Third Light processing units (cores) to Folding@home and 40 more to a similar protein-mapping project, Rosetta@home. You can see the technical details around our involvement in the former – and our ranking in a gigantic league table! – below, and updated live here.

Folding at home Covid research

Folding@home’s ultimate goal is gathering one million ‘folders’; if you think you or your organization could be one of them you can volunteer unused computer space here. Simply download the appropriate software for your operating system and specify when and how you’d like it to work.

Folding at Home demonstrates the power of collective action, and we're proud to play our part in finding the answer to the pressing issue of COVID-19 research.