Over the weekend, the folks leading the SETI@home distributed-computing project announced it would be on hiatus at the end of March. The project was one of the first attempts to successfully convince home users to donate some of their free computer time to help with research, and its success led to a host of related projects.
During the break, users with a penchant for distributed computing can check out Folding@home, which is trying to figure out the structures of proteins on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.
The SETI@home project page simply describes the reason for the shutdown. Over the years, home users have done so much processing that the team now has a large backlog of processed data to analyze. So the researchers are prioritizing managing the data distribution and instead focusing on looking at what’s already been done in the hopes of having their analysis published in an academic journal. As a result, no more work units will be distributed after the end of March.
SETI@home was an extremely popular project in its heyday and helped define the parameters for successful distributed computing. It had an obvious public interest – find the first signs of little green men! – and packaged it into a screensaver that (although difficult for a non-expert to interpret) was visually pleasing and made users feel like work was being done. I’ll admit right away that I installed it on the computers of a few labs where I worked.
Its success sparked a number of other distributed computing projects focused on things ranging from cracking encryption keys to detecting neurons. Since then, additional projects have led people to visually analyze data ranging from images of galaxies to ancient weather reports.
On the computing side, ARS readers made a significant contribution for a number of years when distributed computing became gamified and hosted public rankings. For a while, we’ve been posting regular updates on our readership progress (you can find some at the bottom of this page), and Ars still has a distributed computing forum.
There was so much interest that Berkeley researchers developed a distributed infrastructure and API to which other projects could be connected. The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing now houses a large number of projects running on multiple operating systems and architectures, all generally focused on academic research in the sciences and mathematics. SETI@home has been another plugin for the BOINC architecture for a while now; users who are still interested in distributed computing can simply choose another project.
The SETI@home project managers suggest they are looking for other astronomers who may want to take advantage of the processing power that was mobilized for the search for aliens. It’s not clear whether that would be done through the existing SETI@home client or by redirecting people to another BOINC plugin.
If you’re looking for an alternative distributed computing project, Folding@home is looking for help addressing a matter of great public interest right now: the structure of key proteins on the surface of SARS-CoV-2. The coronavirus uses these proteins to attach to proteins on the surface of human cells, an important step in their ability to infect them.
Understanding the structure of this protein is a key to understanding the virus’s vulnerabilities. While it will not aid in the production of a general vaccine, it can be very helpful in developing therapies. Once we know where this protein interacts with its receptor on human cells, we can start looking for small molecules that can bind in the same location, potentially blocking this interaction. Alternatively, we may be able to generate antibodies that bind to this site on the virus protein. Any of these options can help people who are already infected, as they can limit the virus’ ability to spread to new cells.
Fortunately, research into SARS-CoV-2 is moving incredibly fast, and biologists have kept pace with the computers here. Structural details of the key protein on the virus’s surface have already been published, giving researchers a chance to think about ways to disrupt the infection.
However, that does not mean that all Folding@home’s results are now useless. The existing structure provides valuable control over results derived from calculations, and it is much easier to try alternative configurations – complexed with proteins on the cell surface and even complexed with potential drugs, to give two examples – using computers then to confirm the results via biochemistry.