Layperson asks: Folding@Home worthwhile?

David Konerding, Ph.D. dek at
Fri Mar 1 11:53:36 EST 2002

On 1 Mar 2002 08:24:54 -0800, guanxi <guanxi_i at> wrote:
> My question is, how likely is it that this project will provide some
> significant benefit to the world?

Moderately likely.  Some people believe that if a technical solution to
"the protein folding problem" (IE, we can predict the structure of a
protein given its sequence) we will be able to engineer proteins with
novel functions; useful in material engineering, pharmaceuticals, and
various other industries.  The reality is that the proteins
Folding at Home are folding up are small, and most "interesting" proteins
with relevant functions are larger, and don't follow the same rules of
protein folding (for example, they might only fold properly with the
help of other proteins, or they have extra functional groups after they
fold, or they don;t need to fold to operate).

> The distributed computing technology intrigues me, and I have an idea
> what protein folding is and that it's useful knowledge, but I have no
> idea if I'm wasting CPU cycles on this particular project.  I could
> use them for something more practical, like finding broadcasts from
> intelligent alien lifeforms (i.e. SETI).

Hmm.  Well, for one thing, if the PCs are otherwise idle, then you're not
exactly 'wasting' cycles, are you?  Actually, it's more complex.  Idle PCs
tend to run cooler than working CPUs (if the OS uses the HLT instruction, it's
particularly noticeable).  So your airconditioner might not have to work as hard
if you don't run a screensaver.

But I don't really see running SETI at Home as practical as Folding at Home.  What,
exactly, would be the benefit of finding intelligent aliens on the other side
of the galaxy?  They could be malicious.  Communicatinig with them would take millenia.
We would probably never get to meet them in person.  etc.


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