The worlds fastest supercomputer has been created from volunteers loaning spare time on their home PCs to fold proteins, a scientific task that could prove instrumental in the fight against the coronavirus.
According to Folding@Home, the organisation that runs the distributed computing effort, the combined power of the network broke 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 operations per second – or one “exaflop” – on 25 March.
That made it six times more powerful than the current worlds fastest traditional supercomputer, the IBM Summit, which is used for scientific research at the USs Oak Ridge National Laboratory. By Monday, it had more than doubled that, hitting a new record of 2.4 exaflops, faster than the top 500 traditional supercomputers combined, thanks to almost 1 million new members of the network.
The breakthrough reflects a huge spike in support for the Folding@Home project. Backers run a simple piece of software on their home computer, which then downloads and performs small tasks to help determine the physical structure of proteins.
All complex proteins are made of one or more strings of amino acids, folded in on themselves in complex – but predictable – ways to make 3D shapes. By applying those predictable rules, even a home computer can carry out folding calculations, and when millions of home computers are running the software at the same time, the total network can far outpace traditional supercomputers.
In March, Folding@Home announced a new set of tasks related to Covid-19 that would put contributors to work simulating the dynamics of the proteins that make up Sars-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) to hunt for new prospects for drugs to tackle the disease.
It is already paying off. One effort has been focusing on the “spike” protein that Sars-CoV-2 uses to invade human cells, says Greg Bowman, one of the researchers coordinating the effort. “It is well established that the spike must undergo a dramatic opening motion to reveal the interface that ultimately binds a human cell. Understanding how the spike opens up … could be extremely useful. Every step along the way could potentially be targeted with therapeutics.
“Unfortunately, there is no way to watch a spike undergo this transition, at least with existing experimental techniques. Data on what the open state even looks like is also limited.” But after just a few weeks of project time, the team was able to create a simulation that showed the first stage of the “mouth” opening up.
Those successes have taken the project far beyond its previous peak in 2007, when Sony built support for Folding@Home into its PlayStation 3 consoles, increasing the amount of processing power available at a stroke.
Since then, interest has waxed and waned. Folding@Home and similar projects were hurt by the rise of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies, which offered another, less altruistic, use for “spare” processing power: “mining” for coins that could make real money. But the project also saw a boost in early March, just days before it announced its new Covid-19 focus, when SETI@home, the pioneer distributed computing effort, shut down.
SETI@home had been sending radio telescope data to computers around the world since 1999, which would then be analysed for signs of extraterrestrial life. But last month, the researchers behind it closed the program, saying they had analysed “all the data we need” for the foreseeable future.
“Its a lot of work for us to manage the distributed processing of data,” SETI@homes organisers said. “We need to focus on completing the back-end analysis of the results we already have, and writing this up in a scientific journal paper.”