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Teaching Biology Blog

Citizen science - distributed computing

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Interested in searching out aliens? Want to help find a cure for cancer or muscular dystrophy? Discover more effective AIDS drugs? Breed more nutritious rice? Then try distributed computing. Distributed computing is the use of many separate but networked computers, each running the same program, to solve complex problems. When volunteers download the software for a particular project, their computers quietly set to work using idle processing power to sift through enormous data sets or crunch through intricate calculations. The combined efforts of many thousands of computers can make otherwise unworkable research possible.

Distributed computing is perhaps the most indifferent type of citizen science. You can participate without knowledge, effort, or observation. Nonetheless, these projects are valuable teaching tools. The home pages of most distributed computing projects include detailed information on the science involved, written specifically to capture the attention of non-scientists. Many include blogs, activities, and links designed to keep participants informed and engaged. Others have forums with often lively debate over the merits and problems of various projects. The range of projects is broad enough to include work that applies to any biology curriculum and that should appeal to most students. Besides the basic science of these projects, distributed computing also can be used to explore other topics, such as the ethical and practical implications of intellectual property rights and patents related to organisms, drugs, genes, and other biologic material, and the competition between diseases for funding and public attention.

Here are a few good places to get started. Googling distributed computing and volunteer computing will bring up many other resources.

SETI@home is the largest and best known distributed computing project. Users scan through radio signals from space searching for patterns that could indicate extra-terrestrial life.

Folding@home examines the links between the structure of proteins and diseases such as mad cow, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s.

BOINC is a software system that many distributed computing programs run on. The home site acts as a clearinghouse for projects, and includes tips on how to evaluate and choose programs. BOINC allows volunteers to divide up their computer time among multiple projects. Projects include work on malaria control, climate modeling, the evolution of DNA sequences, and the genetic links to disease.

The World Community Grid is dedicated to “projects that benefit humanity.” Current projects includes research on drugs targeting dengue fever, AIDS, muscular dystrophy, and cancer, on new strains of rice to combat famine, and on finding more efficient materials for use in solar cells.

Image - Lion, drawn by Morito Iokawa, age 5. Died of acute lymphocytic leukemia at age 6. The Help Fight Childhood Cancer Project is a distributed computing project run through the World Community Grid. Image credit - Children's Cancer Association of Japan.

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