Untold millions of people have rushed to render aid to others as the Covid pandemic has gripped the globe, but those individual contributions took different forms. Some of us did what we could and helped by donating spare computing cycles to distributed computing, which helps researchers use the power of everyday home computers and devices to search for cures. Unfortunately, the result of that work isn't always clear in the public eye, but Nature Chemistry has revealed (opens in new tab) that Folding@Home, the distributed supercomputer to which anyone can lend their system's computing power, enabled researchers to simulate the proteome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic.
Folding@Home was introduced in 2000 to allow everyday people to assist with simulations of protein folding to better understand cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and many other medical problems caused by misfolded proteins. So it's been around for decades, but its popularity exploded when the pandemic started.
The project's number of active devices grew from 30,000 to 1 million in just three months after COVID-19 went global. Its computing power surpassed that of the top seven supercomputers in March 2020; it broke the exaFLOP barrier a few days later. By April 2020, it was more powerful than the top 500 supercomputers combined.
By then, nobody could deny the power of Folding@Home. The question was how the world's first exascale supercomputer would be used. Performance for its own sake is always intriguing, but much like playing the original Doom with an RTX 3090, it's easy to wonder if that power is being used effectively. Now we have an answer.
"Using this resource, we constructed quantitative maps of the structural ensembles of over two dozen proteins and complex that pertain to SARS-CoV-2 from milliseconds of simulation data generated for each system," researchers said in the Nature Chemistry article. "Together, we have run 0.1s of simulation."
To put that in perspective: An estimated 4.8 million CPU cores and 280,000 GPUs contributed 1.01 exaFLOPs of compute power to simulate SARS-CoV-2, and they were able to simulate a tenth of a second of its proteome. Imagine how long that 0.1 seconds of simulation would've taken on any other platform.
That tenth-of-a-second could also make a significant difference in efforts to combat SARS-CoV-2. The researchers said their revelation of "over 50 'cryptic' pockets" can "expand targeting options for the design of antivirals" and assist with the discovery of "immediate therapeutic interventions" so life can become more normal again.
The increased power of Folding@Home also has implications beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. "Our work here highlights the incredible utility this compute power has to enable rapid understanding of health and disease," the researchers said, "providing a rich source of structural data for accelerating the design of therapeutics."
"With the continued support of the citizen scientists that have made this work possible," they added, "we have the opportunity to make a profound impact on other global health crises such as cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and antibiotic resistance."
The results of contributing to F@H or other distributed computing networks isn't always as clear-cut as a direct breakthrough that finds a cure, but it does have a tremendous impact — the smaller pieces all build towards the final goal. The work continues. You can learn how to support those efforts on Folding@Home's website.