Faster than a speeding supercomputer: Volunteers amp up a disease-fighting project

Stanford University’s [email protected] is getting huge, thanks to an influx of users.

April 15, 2020

Hitting the PlayStation 3 seems like it would be the peak of any app developer’s career.

That’s precisely what happened with Stanford University’s [email protected] back in 2007. 

The project’s name makes it sound like you’d get high scores for doing laundry (actually sort of a brilliant idea nowadays), but we’re talking a different kind of folding. The folding of proteins — and the diseases that arise when the folding goes haywire.

To crunch the data, [email protected] uses distributed computing — AKA the machines of an A-Team of volunteers who install its software.

As Ars Technica reported, the jump to the PS3 brought in 15m users. But the project’s PS3 run ended 5 years later, and in January, it was down to just 30k users.

Fast forward to the Bad Times…

… and [email protected] went freakin’ WILD. 

Its user base swelled to 400k in March, and added another 300k after that.

Teamwork really does make the dream work: The whole project is now more powerful than the top 500 supercomputers — combined. (!)

Why is protein folding so hot right now?

Because the project can help researchers understand the proteins on the coronavirus’s surface. It also helped that the recent end of another distributed-computing project — [email protected], which was all about hunting aliens — left people with processing power to spare.

Tracking down ET may be out of reach, but at this rate, understanding COVID-19 won’t be.

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