June 27, 2011, 10:37 AM — Free program Folding@Home has nothing to do with laundry, even though that's the only kind of folding most of us ever do at home. Instead, it has to do with health and medical research. Folding@Home helps scientists gain a better understanding a wide range of illnesses including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Huntington's, cystic fibrosis, and other serious diseases.
"Folding" is something proteins do. In a nutshell, it's a process whereby the protein transforms from a random-looking string into a functional three-dimensional structure. Sometimes proteins can fold incorrectly, and this leads to a host of degenerative diseases. If this description sounds a bit fuzzy, it's not just because it was written by a computer scientist trying to explain biology: It's also because it's an incredibly complex process, which has not yet been fully understood.
One way to understand protein folding (and misfolding) is to simulate it. Such as simulation is a virtually unlimited computing problem: The more processing power you have, the more complex your simulation can be. And this is where your humble computer (or awesome gaming rig) enters the picture.
Rather than invest in a huge supercomputer, Folding@Home harnesses the collective computing power of Windows, Mac, and Linux computers, as well as Playstation consoles. Each of these platforms has a Folding@Home client.
I evaluated the Windows client. On the surface, it looks like a screensaver with a simple configuration interface. It gets a small chunk of work from the central Folding@Home server, crunches away at the problem, submits the result and then gets a new chunk of work to do. Multiply this by over 460,000 active clients, and you've got one impressive supercomputer.
One thing I like about Folding@Home is that you constantly see results. The project has been active since October 2000, and since that time, over 70 research papers have been published using its data. On a more playful or personal level, you can set a username for yourself and track your own personal contribution over time using the project's website. You can even join a team and compete against other teams from around the world. The teams page shows some formidable work done by various computer enthusiast groups and overclocking forums.