Chris Gulker

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The Independent Online

I'm sitting here in Silicon Valley folding socks. It's easier to fold the laundry when my wife helps, but she's works at a startup and doesn't get home at a decent hour. I'm in a startup, too. We never get home at a decent hour together.

I'm sitting here in Silicon Valley folding socks. It's easier to fold the laundry when my wife helps, but she's works at a startup and doesn't get home at a decent hour. I'm in a startup, too. We never get home at a decent hour together.

But our problems are small compared to a dear friend's who recently underwent a double mastectomy. This propelled me to look into the subject of cancer, which gets you to the topic of the human genome, which leads to proteins, and that, of course, gets you to distributing computing, aka, peer-to-peer technologies.

The theory behind peer-to-peer is that, now that many of the world's computers are networked, there are better ways to do things. The network means that huge amounts of computing power are within everyone's reach. Take the plight of my friend who's coping with breast cancer. Peer-to-peer means I can get involved.

As complicated as the genome is, the proteins that cells make, using the genome's "blueprints", are even more complex. Not only are they complex molecules, but they twist and fold in specific ways.

And a protein's peculiar foldings make all the difference. Fold a bit to the right, and Ms Protein can aid vital, life-sustaining processes. Folded a bit differently and we got a problem. Both cancer and Alzheimer's may involve proteins that fold "differently".

There are billions of ways for molecules to fold, and each folding is a potential disease, or a cure for one. So how can we wade through them all? One way is to model them on a computer. But there are billions of complicated possibilities: requiring, at our current level of technology, hundreds of thousandsof modern computers to solve.

And what might it cost to assemble millions of computers to tackle a problem? One answer is "nothing". There are already some hundreds of millions of computers in the world, a large number of which are a) turned on at any given moment, b) connected to the internet and c) underutilised.

So, two institutions – Oxford in the UK, and Stanford in the US – are asking computer users with internet connections to turn their machines' idle time to the task of illuminating how proteins fold.

So, if you're getting a bit tired pairing the socks, check in at: www.uniteddevices.com or www.folding.stanford.edu. Understanding protein folding has one thing in common with folding laundry: the more people who help, the faster it goes.

cg@gulker.com

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