The virus that causes COVID-19 moves very fast, but the scientists working to defeat it are moving even faster. Using the power of a vast worldwide network of computers, they can scrutinize the virus at speeds faster than the top 500 supercomputers combined.
Members of the Wyoming Technology Coronavirus Coalition (WTCC) quickly rose to among the top-performing teams in the collaboration when they joined earlier this month.
The Folding At Home (FAH) project is working flat-out against the new Coronavirus. By donating their otherwise unused computer time, members of the WTCC team joined during the weeks that FAH doubled its total processing speeds to a mind-boggling 2.3 Exaflops, or 2.3 billion billions of calculations per second. That’s by far the fastest computer performance in the world.
FAH is a distributed computing effort that began almost 20 years ago in the chemistry department at Stanford University. Over the years, it has taken advantage of unused time on thousands of individual computers to analyze the structures of many proteins. It claims more than 200 reports in the scientific literature about proteins involved in Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease, antibiotic resistance, and Ebola virus. But nothing has matched its power against COVID-19.
WTCC member Jeremiah Gillis has been part of FAH for many years, back since he joined it using spare time on his PlayStation 3. Eventually Sony ended support for FAH on that device and never offered it on the current PlayStation 4. But the computers in his home office now contribute as part of FAH team number 257578. They’re on duty full-time in the background working for the project, while he goes about his usual daily tasks on the same devices.
“This is something simple, and you don’t really need to be a tech to use it,” says Gillis, who works as an electrical engineer in Cody. “It’s all pretty straightforward. All you have to do is install the program, and it doesn’t take a lot of storage space. You can set it to use [your computer’s time] only when it’s idle, so if you walk away and you’re not using it, then it will just start up and fold.”
The computer isn’t actually “folding” anything; it’s helping to analyze the how part of a molecule included somewhere in the virus is folded, determining its 3D shape which in turn affects its biochemical activity. The computer accepts a so-called work unit, a specific set of commands that carry out a small part of a particular computer simulation, helping to analyze the structure or physical behavior part of the virus. Having carried out its little task, the computer uploads the result to the FAH servers.
The new Coronavirus attacks human cells much as you might pick up a burr during a hike in the woods, grabbing on with the miniscule spikes that cover its surface. The spikes open up and allow the virus to “dock” on the cell surface. Understanding how this works may help learn how to interfere with its ability to infect people. The FAH project is also working to analyze drugs that can interfere with the ability of the virus to duplicate its genetic material and multiply.
As each computer in the network completes one small part of the grand experiment, it racks up points representing the scientific productivity of that work unit. The points are ranked, which lends a spirit of competition to the teams in the project.
On April 5, when the WTCC team ranked 7,322 among about 250,000 teams, member Ryan Alford set a goal of rising above 5,000. Today (April 16) it ranks at 3,222–even though, as Alford says, one of his own computers has an unreliable network connection and only “connects when it feels like it.”
Anyone can contribute computer time to the FAH project, and WTCC hopes to build its team with many computers from outside the organization. If you’d like to join, check out the instructions at https://wtcc.tech/help-and-resources/i-have-a-computer/. If you need help, just contact WTCC and the team will be happy to assist you in installing the software on your computer.