Every little bit helps

If researchers knew the shapes of all the proteins in the human body, they could understand how diseases prevent proteins from performing their necessary functions to maintain healthy cells. Dave Wilson explains.


There are those who have little and give it all. These are the believers in life and the bounty of life. – Kahlil Gibran.


If researchers knew the shapes of all the proteins in the human body, they could understand not only how they behave, but also how diseases prevent proteins from performing their necessary functions to maintain healthy cells.


Now it might sound like a simple task to figure out the shape of all of these proteins, but it ain’t. While there are only 20 different kinds of amino acids that make up all proteins in the human body, sometimes hundreds of them make up a single protein.


And these proteins don’t just stay as long chains of amino acids when they are made either. As soon as the chain is built, it folds into a particular shape that lets it perform specific functions within the body and dictate what other proteins it can connect to or interact with.


Although genes in the body dictate how to build the chain of amino acids for any one of 30,000 proteins, the bad news is that the genes don’t reveal how the proteins fold into their final shape.


Now, scientists working on ‘The Human Proteome Folding Project’ are bringing together the power of thousands of massively distributed computers in a Grid network to help them understand the folding process. And the super thing about it is that even if you know nothing about the subject at all, you can help out by joining your computer up to the Grid and donating some spare computer power.


If you fancy it, you first have to go to the Web Site of the World Community Grid here where you can download, and then run, a small piece of software called a Grid Agent.


The Grid Agent software automatically starts when you start your computer and runs when your computer is idle. The more your computer is on, the more processing happens. The software doesn’t need to be connected to the Internet to work its task, but once finished, it needs to reconnect to the Internet to return data it has finished working on and to get a new task.


When the Grid ‘Agent’ is running, it folds an amino acid chain in various ways and evaluates how well each folding follows specific rules that determine how the amino acids that make up a particular protein ‘stick together or not’. The best shapes identified for each protein are then returned to the scientists for further study.


As if solving this problem wasn’t rough enough, the folks that run the Grid are also looking for new research projects that can benefit from grid technology and have a positive impact on humanity. Any suggestions?