UW biomedical researcher taps home computers for oomph

Biomedical researcher David Baker wants you to know that the key to an AIDS vaccine or a cure for cancer may be sitting under a layer of dust in your storage closet or on your desk doing nothing but running a screen saver.

Your outdated or idle computer may be just what Baker needs to turn his ideas into scientific breakthroughs.

Baker, 43, a researcher at the University of Washington, realized about two years ago that he had neither the computing power to uncover protein structures at the atomic level nor the money to buy time elsewhere on supercomputers.

But as he was realizing his project's limitations, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, decided to share the software they had developed to harness home-computing power to search for intelligent life in the universe, a project that is the biggest beneficiary of donated computer time from nearly 953,000 computers.

Distributed computing was pioneered at the University of California, but the idea has been adopted by others, including Google, which offers a link called Google Compute for its toolbar to let people donate idle computer time to worthwhile projects.

Baker's Rosetta@home project is attracting computer users who like the idea of helping find a cure for cancer and admire the way Baker has involved regular people in his research.

"We're getting these volunteer virtual communities popping up that are doing wonderful things," Baker said. "People like to get together for good causes."

The project takes a more direct approach to other diseases, including the search for an HIV vaccine. For example, the researchers hope to develop a way to help the body recognize critical parts of the HIV protein so that it can no longer hide from the body's immune system, Baker said.

Nearly 60,000 people are donating computer power to Baker's research — equivalent to the power of one supercomputer. He hopes to increase that number by at least tenfold — enough to lead to major scientific breakthroughs.

The project now has participants from around the world, but the earliest donor of idle computer time came from across campus at the UW's Housing and Food Services.

"I knew the kind of power that personal computers could have if you pulled them all together," said Ethan Owens, 27, a department employee who had been donating home-computer time to the search for extraterrestrial life.

Owens approached the astronomy department, which didn't need his department's 200 computers, so he took his offer to Baker.

Baker and Owens' first conversations happened a short time after the University of California started offering its software to anyone who wanted to use it. Soon, dormitory front desks, computer labs, maintenance offices and kitchen business centers became part of Baker's lab.

By the time school started last fall, the two organizations were working together to recruit students to put the networking software on their personal computers, and the project has grown both on and off campus ever since.

Survivors assist

Many of the most active volunteers are cancer survivors or people who have lost close friends or relatives to the disease.

Philip Williams, 53, who writes software for the federal government in Washington, D.C., said he started pulling old Macs out of the closet when he learned more about the Rosetta project. The two-time survivor of Hodgkin's disease has a small wireless network at home and plans to add more computers soon.

Although Williams continues to contribute computer time to a few other projects, his loyalty clearly lies with Baker.

"Baker's group has a way of making people think that they are part of the project," said Williams, who also has volunteered to help diagnose problems other participants are having with the software.

Baker said it's not that users just think they are important to the project — they really are.

"As a scientist, one of the things you're supposed to do is outreach. Outreach has become fundamental to solving the problem," Baker said, pointing out that his team has gotten good ideas about new research angles by involving the public in the research as much as possible. Some of the ideas are generated on the project's message boards.

How volunteers help

The volunteers have recruited more people, have made useful suggestions about software issues and have helped test new software versions before they are sent out to everyone on Rosetta@home.

Williams said Baker's participation in project message boards and the scientist's direct communication with the amateur scientists who contribute computer time have made Rosetta much more than a quirky project of the month.

"This is not trivial work that this guy's doing," Williams said. "Because he's exploring not just the biomedical side of this, but how to go about doing the computer, there's an opportunity for people who don't have a medical background to truly contribute."

David P. Anderson, director of Berkeley's open-source software project that made Rosetta@home possible, said Baker's lab has done a particularly good job of connecting the participants to the science, including sharing the potential medical impact of the tests.

"Hopefully, Rosetta is setting a standard that the other projects will have to live up to if they want to hold onto their participants," Anderson said.


Rosetta@home project: