SEATTLE - Researcher David Baker says the key to an AIDS vaccine or a cure for cancer might be that old PC sitting under a layer of dust in your closet or the one on your desk doing little else but running a screen saver.
Mr. Baker, 43, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Washington, realized about two years ago that he didn't have access to the computing horsepower needed for his research - nor the money to buy time on supercomputers elsewhere.
So he turned to the kindness - and computers - of strangers.
Using software made popular in a massive, yet so far fruitless, search for intelligent life beyond Earth, he and his research team are tapping the computing power of tens of thousands of PCs whose owners are donating spare computer time to chop away at scientific problems over the Internet.
Mr. Baker's Rosetta@home project is attracting everyday PC users who like the idea of helping find a cure for cancer.
"We're getting these volunteer virtual communities popping up that are doing wonderful things," he said. "People like to get together for good causes."
The project sends work to computers that have installed the necessary free software. When the machine is idle, it figures out how an individual protein might fold or contort, displaying the possibilities in a screen saver. When the PC is done crunching, it sends the results back to Mr. Baker's team and grabs more work.
More than 60,000 people are donating computer power to Mr. Baker's research - equivalent to the power of one supercomputer. He hopes to increase that number by at least tenfold.
The earliest donor of idle computer time came from across campus at the university'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, whose department provides 200 computers.
More than 690,000 people worldwide are helping research organizations via the University of California Berkeley's Open Infrastructure for Network Computing project. At the Web site boinc.berkeley.edu, users can sign up for any project, and the Berkeley software is available to any scientific researcher who wants it.
- Associated Press