Science at Home

4 08 2009
Handsome scientist and bon-vivant Louis Pasteur helped develop germ theory, invented the first rabies vaccine, and of course, invented pasteurization! Jealous? I don't blame you.

Handsome scientist and bon-vivant Louis Pasteur helped develop germ theory, invented the first rabies vaccine, and of course, invented pasteurization! Jealous? I don't blame you.

Ever find yourself wracked with envy over the fabulous lifestyles of the members of the scientific community? Does the sight of a lab-coated, bespectacled scientist strolling down Park Avenue with an air of well-earned confidence turn you green with envy? Want to reel in the ladies like a marine biologist? Well worry no more friends!

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Since the rise of the mighty internet and the realization that supercomputers are very expensive and humans are good at doing things computers aren’t, numerous scientific teams have turned to you, the curious civilian, for help. Here’s a few ways you can get involved with ongoing research from the comfort of your very own home!

1. Folding@home is a project started by Stanford University with the ambitious goal of understanding how proteins fold through computer modeling. What’s that mean? Well let’s take a little step back!

Here's a model of a single protein molecule. Every little line represents an atom. See what I mean by huge?

Here's a model of a single protein molecule. Every little line represents an atom. See what I mean by huge?

Proteins are huge (huge! really really huge!) molecules/complexes of molecules that represent the largest portion of the dry mass (that’s nonwater mass!) of your body. They function in an a similarly huge variety of ways, from transporting Oxygen and CO2 around in your bloodstream (hemoglobin) to intercellular signalling (certain hormones, like insulin) to the transformation of chemical energy to kinetic energy (the actin and myosin in your muscles!).

Now, a protein doesn’t just magically pop into existence! It has to be painstakingly constructed, piece by piece, by hardworking little protein/rna complexes called ribosomes. These ribosomes help construct a chain of amino acids based on the genetic code stored in your DNA. But the chain of amino acids produced by ribosomes isn’t a finished protein! You see, proteins do their thing because of their shape, and they can’t function until they’ve reached what is called their tertiary structure. The tertiary structure of a protein is reached when you take a chain of amino acids and fold it up in just the right way, so that you have a beautifully folded and effective protein. It’s like making a paper crane – the paper isn’t the crane, it has to be folded up first. But unfortunately, our bodies and our cells are not perfect, and sometimes folding goes awry, resulting in misfolded proteins. These misfolded proteins are the wrong shape, and since their function is based on their shape, they can’t do their jobs! Think of a doofy looking paper crane and all the unamused children it would disappoint. Probably wouldn’t grant wishes, either.

Well, the folks over at Stanford are using computer modeling to try and figure out exactly how you get from the piece of paper to the paper crane, from the amino acid chain to the tertiary structure. They want to know just how this chain gets tangled up to form a functional protein, because if they can figure that out, they can figure out what happens when it gets misfolded, and if they can figure that out, they might be able to ensure proper folding and prevent the many diseases and disorders that result from misfolded proteins (sickle-cell anemia and cystic fibrosis are just two serious illnesses caused by misfolding). That’s where you come in.

Modeling the interactions of the tens of thousands of atoms that make up a protein is extremely processing-intensive, and it would take a really long time to model a protein folding on just one computer. That’s why the folks at Stanford created the Folding@home program. You can download a little applet and install it on your computer, and Stanford will send you little data packets to process. The program will run in the background and use your spare processor cycles to analyze the data you’ve been sent. Then, once your computer has sorted everything out, the program automatically uploads the finished product back to Stanford for compiling. Pretty neat huh? And because the program only uses your spare processor cycles, you shouldn’t see any slowdown of your computer. As your own demand for processing goes up, the Folding@home program dials back its own demands.
The data coming out of the Folding@home program has resulted in dozens of papers being published and has slowly advanced human knowledge of protein folding and misfolding. And you can be a part of it! Just install the program from the link at the start of this article and get folding!

2. SETI@home is a program run out of the Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory in Berkeley, California. It works off of similar principles of distributed computing as Folding@home – in fact, SETI@home was the proof of concept for distributed computing. SETI, if you aren’t aware, stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. If you install the SETI@home program, you’ll be sent packets of data from the humongous Arecibo Observatory near Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Your computer will then analyze this data for anything that might be a signal from extraterrestrial life, separating noise from information. So far, nothing has been found. But you can help improve the odds!

Here's an example of a spiral galaxy with a bar, called NGC1300. Another beautiful sight courtesy of everybody's favorite space telescope, Hubble.

Here's an example of a spiral galaxy with a bar, called NGC1300. Another beautiful sight courtesy of everybody's favorite space telescope, Hubble.

3. Galaxy Zoo is a home science project for the more active amateur scientists out there. The Galaxy Zoo folks are trying to figure out stuff about the 200 billion+ galaxies out there, such as, what proportion of galaxies are spiral? What about elliptical? How many arms do spiral galaxies usually have? What about their bulges? Bars? In answering these questions, the folks at Galaxy Zoo hope not only to have a better idea of the distribution of different kinds of galaxies, but also figure some things out about galaxy formation.

At Galaxy Zoo, you’ll be given a quick galaxy identification course (it takes about 10 minutes and is relatively painless) and then you’ll be asked to evaluate pictures of galaxies taken from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey for shape, structure, and any abnormalities. See, humans are much better at doing this kind of thing than any current computers (and volunteer labor is free), so they can do this kind of work very efficiently! That should make you feel special. There’s still at least one thing a machine can’t do better than you.

Wow! Three wonderful ways for you to get involved in science! You may have noticed I’ve used many exclamation points in this post, perhaps because this stuff really gets me going. Well I hope it gets you going, too! So go now, and contribute to the scientific endeavor! Future generations of humans will look back and thank you for your hard work – and your processor cycles.

-Neil

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