Skip to main content

Stanford group wants to use your computer to help researchers study the coronavirus

Stanford group wants to use your computer to help researchers study the coronavirus


Folding@home leverages unused computing power from idle machines

Share this story

Coronavirus Illustration
Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Stanford University’s Folding@home distributed computing project is seeking volunteers to help researchers develop treatment therapies for the novel coronavirus.

Folding@home (FAH) uses the processing capacity of networked computers to simulate the complex process of protein folding, which helps determine how to treat diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer, and SARS, another coronavirus. A brief explainer from Folding@home:

For both coronaviruses [the current 2019 nCoV and SARS], the first step of infection occurs in the lungs, when a protein on the surface of the virus binds to a receptor protein on a lung cell. This viral protein is called the spike protein ... Proteins are not stagnant—they wiggle and fold and unfold to take on numerous shapes. We need to study not only one shape of the viral spike protein, but all the ways the protein wiggles and folds into alternative shapes

Studying how the protein folds could eventually help researchers develop drugs that could treat infections of the virus.

This kind of research requires substantial computational power, which FAH generates by tapping into volunteers’ CPUs when they’re idle. The project famously used to use idle Sony PlayStation 3s, whose unique “Core” processors offered better performance at the time than comparable computers for the specific tasks FAH was doing. But Sony removed the functionality from PS3s in 2012.

To participate in the coronavirus project, download the FAH software, and your computer’s unused resources will go to the Folding@home Consortium, “where a research team at Memorial Sloan Kettering is working to advance our understanding of the structures of potential drug targets for 2019-nCoV that could aid in the design of new therapies,” according to FAH’s blog post.

There have been more than 89,000 confirmed cases worldwide of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. More than 3,000 people have died from the disease, including six people in Washington State. Marked by a cough, fever, and shortness of breath, the illness is typically mild, affecting the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions most acutely.