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DAILY MANIFESTO

Folding for Dummies

Posted on Tuesday, May 15 @ 21:13:20 Eastern by Duke_Ferris
There's some buzz going around about the PS3 possibly "curing cancer", so by popular demand, I thought I'd lay the facts out fairly simply for everyone.

In fact, the official Sony podcast contacted me today to help explain the Folding@Home system for next week's show. It will be available through the PSP content pack and Playstation's RSS feeds. However, that got me thinking that more people should understand how it all works, so I thought I'd put a sneak preview up on GR.

It all began back in 1995 when a University of California, Berkeley group helping SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) was always running out of computing power. They were trying to analyze billions of intergalactic radio signals looking for patterns that indicated intelligence. Alien TV broadcasts, if you will.

One of their researchers realized that there were millions of personal computers sitting around in people's homes doing nothing for 16 hours a day, so he made the world's nerdiest screensaver. Called SETI@Home, when you computer was idle, it would contact SETI, get some data to analyze, and send the results back. Still the largest "distributed computing" project, they got better-than-supercomputer performance for free - all in the name of science.

Fast forward to 2007, and Stanford University has a program called Folding@Home studying complex protein behaviors called "folding". Someone has the brilliant idea to create a PS3 version and a deal is struck with Sony to put it right in the PS3's operating system (1.6 or later). You can find it in the "Network" column.

I'm going to simplify here - a lot. If you think of a human cell as a factory that makes cars, proteins would be the employees, robots and machinery that do the work. Now if a protein isn't "folding" right, it's not doing it's job properly. Sometimes thats not a problem, but say, for example, what if the robotic arm that installs the steering wheel is putting it in the trunk instead? You end up with a very bad car that will crash and cause other problems. Problems like Alzheimer's,  Parkinson's, Mad Cow disease, and even cancer.

The problem is that these proteins are far, far more complex than a robotic arm, and can "fold" in timeframes measured in billionths of a second. It's like trying to solve a million-sided Rubik's cube while it also spins at 10,000 RPM. And that's for just one "fold".

Once you acticvate Folding@Home, when you leave your PS3 idle (and it's online), it will contact Stanford University and be given a protein problem to solve. You can even watch it fiddling with a 3D representation of the protein in real time. Once it's finished (about eight hours) it sends the data back to Stanford. Very cool.

So I urge all of you with PS3's to activate Folding@Home. You even get points (they don't do anything) for helping out. I just created a team for Game Revolution that you can join - team number 72437 - and then I set GR's office PS3 working away on a particularly intractable protein that I call Steve. The PC teams have a big head start, but what the heck. (To join a team, hit triangle and go to "Identity")

So while Folding@Home is not actually curing cancer, it is  helping to put together some very complicated pieces in the puzzle of carbon-based life. We can't say where it will lead, but knowledge is always power.



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