Since 2000, Folding@Home has helped citizen scientists contribute to important research from the comfort of their own computer chairs. But now, thanks to the crazy-powerful computing power of the average smartphone, the company is making the same software available on Sony phones, with wider Android support to follow.
The research project behind Folding@Home is dedicated to understanding protein folding. Proteins carry out a lot of important functions in a living system -- they build everything from blood vessels to hair, they drive chemical reactions, and they give our immune systems their punch. But in order to carry out certain functions, proteins have to fold into particular shapes. Crazy, complex, self-assembled little shapes.
And if proteins don't fold correctly, they can clump together and cause trouble. Any number of diseases (like Alzheimer's disease, cystic fibrosis, and mad cow disease, to name a few) can result.
So it's important to understand how protein folding works and what can go wrong -- but it's also a really difficult thing to study. From Folding@Home's Web site:
Folding is a very complex process, and it’s often challenging to study in the laboratory. It’s amazing that not only do proteins self-assemble — fold — but they do so amazingly quickly: some as fast as a millionth of a second. While this time is very fast on a person’s timescale, it’s remarkably long for computers to simulate. In fact, even modern computers can take a day to simulate about 50 nanoseconds (50/1,000,000,000 of a second). Unfortunately, many proteins fold on the millisecond timescale (1,000,000 nanoseconds). Thus, it would take 20,000 days to simulate folding — i.e. it would take 60 years! That’s a long time to wait for one result!
Folding@Home is a software that adds the computing power of your own PC into one giant fold of supercomputers, allowing researchers to run lightning-quick folding simulations. And the initiative has led to some great research.
But now Folding@Home's computing power could easily double.
In collaboration with Sony, Folding@Home has created an app optimized for Sony phones. Just like the original computer program, it can run in the background while your phone is in your pocket, purse, or under your pillow.
No word on how this might affect battery life, so best to give it a trial run when you’re not on the go. If it seems to be too much of a drain, just save the app for when you’re charging overnight.
With the increased power, researchers will look into the drug resistance of certain proteins targeted by breast cancer treatment. They'll then use the system to do more protein folding with an aim to study misfolding diseases like Alzheimer's.
If you're an Android user without a Sony phone, you can check out another application that follows the same principle. And if you've got an iPhone, there's always the original version of the software. Or you could do some more hands-on research help by counting penguins instead.