In order to understand the viral proteins that cause COVID-19 and design therapeutics to stop them, an experimental Microsoft datacenter submerged beneath the sea in Scotland’s Orkney Islands is processing workloads for a global, distributed computing project known as the Folding@home.
Launched in October 2000, the Folding@home distributed computing project aimed to simulate protein dynamics. According to Microsoft, Proteins are molecular machines that perform many functions essential to life, ranging from providing a sense of taste and smell to muscle contraction and hair growth. How proteins – chains of amino acids – fold into structures determines their function.
Asserting that the Folding@home simulations can lead to breakthroughs such as identifying sites on a viral protein that a therapeutic drug could bind to, Spencer Fowers, a principal member of technical staff for Microsoft’s special projects research group, said, “Folding@home was one of the first distributed computing groups to start working on COVID-related problems and immediately came out with a bunch of workloads that were geared toward finding antibodies and figuring out ways they could create immunizations.”
When Folding@home announced the COVID-19 related research effort, Fowers jumped on the opportunity and deployed the software across the servers on the Northern Isles. In addition, Fowers worked with colleagues at Microsoft to enable Microsoft employees currently working from home to deploy the project on their office computers, and worked with the Folding@home community to improve the ability to install the software remotely.
In addition, these efforts are the contributions that Microsoft is making to Folding@home via the AI for Health initiative, which recently granted Azure computing resources to help Folding@home run simulations of COVID-19 proteins. That effort has already revealed sites on the virus that potential drugs could bind to, Greg Bowman, the director of Folding@home and an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis, noted in a video prepared for Microsoft’s virtual Build developers conference.
“This COVID-19 pandemic is an example of why the distributed computing platform is still relevant today,” said Fowers, explaining that “it makes it quick for adoption, and it gives people the opportunity to feel like they are contributing.”
In a blog post, Microsoft stated that distributed computing projects harness otherwise idle computer processing power to perform specific tasks for big science research. The ongoing projects include efforts to understand climate change, map cancer markers and fight infectious disease. The trend started in the late 1990s when tens of thousands of people downloaded the SETI@home screensaver to hunt for extraterrestrial radio signals.
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