Your computer can fight AIDS

A PC can do more in its spare time than look for aliens. It can also save lives.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Published October 12, 2000 10:04PM (EDT)

It's the perfect catchall excuse for the idle office worker, a thumb-in-the-face to sniveling micromanagers everywhere: "I'm not procrastinating on the fourth-quarter financials! I'm fighting AIDS over here, for Christ's sake!"

Because even while you're reading this Web page, you could be researching new AIDS treatments, or rather, your computer could.

A new distributed computing project, FightAIDS@Home, is trying to do for computational research in HIV treatment what SETI@HOME does for all those little green men who may be lurking beyond our solar system. FightAIDS@Home is gunning to harness millions of idle processor cycles from PC users around the world to conduct computer modeling of molecules that will help in the creation of new AIDS-fighting drugs. Since the site launched Sept. 26, more than 1,050 computers have taken up the charge.

Scientists at the Molecular Graphics Laboratory of the Scripps Research Institute use high-powered computers to create and test models of drug compounds that will thwart evolving HIV molecules. Garrett Morris, a staff scientist, explains that HIV is a "very sloppy copier" of itself -- when it multiplies it quickly mutates. The scientists want to find "co-evolving" drugs that can mutate along with the virus. "It's not unlike a biological arms race," says Morris.

The researchers use computers to "represent the structures and processes of molecules in computer simulation to make predictions about how things might bind together and behave." The FightAIDS@Home project wants to increase the speed of such experimentation exponentially by harnessing the computing power of thousands of PCs all over the world. The software works in the background when your computer is idle or you're not using all your computer's power.

Entropia, a San Diego-based start-up, created the software that allows the molecular simulations to run on so many different computers. The same software is behind the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, a search for a new prime number that has attracted 60,000 users and over 100,000 computers.

There's only one catch: Entropia, a for-profit company, requires that all users agree that some commercial processes also be conducted on their machines. The idea is that Entropia's paying customers -- such as pharmaceutical companies or Hollywood studios -- will harness some portion of your idle computing power for their own ends, in exchange for essentially underwriting good works like fighting AIDS. Entropia fully discloses this "social contract," as they call it, when you sign up. But since right now it has no paying customers at all, it is still unclear how much of your computer's time will go to fighting AIDS and how much will end up going to support commercial endeavors.

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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