Turning the virus into a videogame.

Ireland’s RTÉ Brainstorm reveals how researchers are turning ordinary personal computers into a virus-killing supercomputer and recruiting gamers to solve puzzles that figure out COVID-19 proteins – and how to make medicines for them:

A good chunk of science requires a qualified person with a particular skill set. However, in the data collection stage, it usually comes down to sheer work-hours that may take a small group of researchers a long amount of time. Many hands make light work and retrieving scientific data is no exception.

Over the past few months, citizen scientists across the world have come together to design new drugs to treat coronavirus by playing a puzzle game. Others have produced the world’s largest supercomputer to combat Covid-19 all from within their homes.

Thinking outside the box, researchers from Stanford University developed a piece of software called Folding@home that uses distributed computing to create protein simulations. Instead of using one supercomputer to do one big job, distributed computing uses thousands of regular computers to do one small job each.

By downloading Folding@home, a user’s computer is sent a small calculation which it solves and sends back to the Folding@home server to then receive another. The joint effort of distributed computing can rival the power of supercomputers, provided a big enough community is created.

In March, Folding@home announced they were putting their efforts toward Covid-19 and the number of users exploded from 30,000 to 780,000 within a month, creating a network that was faster than the top 500 supercomputers in the world combined.

[C]ollaborators at the University of Washington created a game called FoldIt that turns drug design into a simple, yet accurate puzzle game. One of the puzzles in this game involves the infamous Covid spike protein, the objective is to design a protein that complements and fits onto the spike protein. Creating such a protein could act as a plug that would jam the spike protein and render it useless. Disabling the spike protein would block it from attaching to human cells and stop the coronavirus from thriving within its host.

Despite the complex nature of drug development, Foldit elegantly simplifies protein design into an intuitive puzzle game while preserving the fundamentals surrounding this topic, enabling anyone to play the game. The greater your designed protein fits or ‘binds’ to the coronavirus spike protein, the higher the score.

Players who create the highest scoring proteins will have their designs made in the lab and tested against Covid-19. So far, 99 protein candidates have been selected and await testing.

[via Mr. Branson]