The entire world is worried about the spreading of the coronavirus. We are locked inside our homes feeling powerless. Computers keep us connected to the outside world and allow us to maintain our sanity.
Everyone now can do his share to help medical researchers find a vaccine and stop the spread of the virus. The good news is that we don’t need to be biomedical scientists. All you have to do is become a citizen scientist (the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge).
To do so, ordinary people share and contribute to data monitoring and collection programs voluntarily. In reality, one doesn’t need much to participate! In the case of the coronavirus research, all we have to do is play a free game available here https://tinyurl.com/BeatCOVID-19 called Foldit.
The game works by presenting users with a puzzle, and they have to solve it. The underlying idea is rather simple. We all know that our body consists of various cells and these cells need proteins to break down food, send signals and loads of other stuff. These proteins are made up of rows of elements (such as carbon, oxygen, sulfur, etc.) all holding each other like a chain. However, the chain is not in a straight line but folded to make it compact. Different proteins then interact with each other if they have a matching shape. Think of it as a lock and a key interacting with each other. Only the correct key can open a specific lock.
The Coronavirus Foldit game displays the part of the coronavirus protein, which usually interacts with humans. The players have to design a folded protein to match the coronavirus and block those interactions. This task can be rather complicated in real-life since a protein can consist of hundreds of elements. Nevertheless, the game presents it as a simple dragging task. Foldit attempts to predict the structure of a protein by taking advantage of humans’ puzzle-solving intuitions and having people play competitively to fold the best proteins.
The University of Washington will then test the most promising solution as a possible real-world vaccine for COVID-19. Some people have their doubts about this approach, but it did work in the past when a Foldit player helped researcher decode the AIDS virus in 2011.
Figuring out which of the possible structures is the best is regarded as one of the hardest problems in biology. Current methods take a lot of time and money, even for computers. If gaming is not for you, you can still help researchers by allowing them to use your computer. One can do so just by downloading a tiny application called Folding@home (https://tinyurl.com/BeatCOVID-19Home) and let it run in the background. The program will then link your computer to an international network that uses distributed programs to chew through massive computing tasks. You can still turn the application off at any time whenever you want but if the computer is lying idle, might as well allow scientists to use its power.
Once they have this computing power available, scientists then create algorithms to solve the folding problem using Artificial Intelligence. The latest of these companies is Google’s DeepMind which just released a tool called “free modelling” to help scientists predict protein structures for previously unseen proteins. They want to reduce the time taken to predict the protein structure since such experiments typically take months in the lab. In so doing, they are hoping to stop the spread of the virus and save some lives.
In a locked-down world, the feeling of helplessness can be overwhelming. But today’s machines can do miracles. They can help us to contribute directly or passively to the advancement of science. The choice is ours. And the great thing about it is that one does not require any medical expertise. So while we’re all at home, why don’t we actively help the fight against the COVID-19 by downloading these apps?