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Couldn't this technology be used to create diseases and viruses. How do I know that folding won't create a bioweapon?

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I have placed my trust in Rosetta@home and the developers of this game to only pursue scientific advancement which is for the greater good. I do not need proof that my feable efforts to fold proteins won't be used to wipe out half the global population.

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Your feeble efforts need not be brilliant to c reate a pathogen


Kamen: Yes, the results could be used to create a toxin, virus, or other pathogen. This is one of the underlying problems with Foldit. One has to trust the individuals that have access to and control over the results, that they will not indeed allow the results to be used for a nefarious purpose. One also has to trust that they have the capability of and intent to protect that information from anyone who could and/or would use the information to that end.

And this is the crux of the problem. Regardless of any noble purpose, regardless of any altruistic bent in the team members, several security lapses have already occurred in this project, via sloppy network security and sloppy programming. And I suspect that if the network security is still being handled by the same individual as it was when the other lapses occurred, it will continue to be a viable danger, until such time as he is removed and replaced buy a more competent indivudal.

Joined: 12/14/2008
the best reason for not making a bioweapon:

There are already more then enough out there. Just think of the people who infect others willingly with AIDS.

Joined: 11/20/2008
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that's correct LennStar

even when you do "create" a malicious virus here on foldit, you won't even know what it does.
If someone wants to use a bioweapon, they want to know about the properties of that particular substance. And there is enough out there, stuff you don't even need a lab for.

Actually, if anyone wants a bioweapon, the best place to start is the internet. Lots of knowledge on low effort (yet very effective) homemade bioweapons. They didn't shut down the internet, though.

Joined: 05/19/2009
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The uploaded the gen code of

The uploaded the gen code of the Spanish flu to the internet for everyone to see. Someone who wants to create a pandemic could just go with that virus and wouldn't need to go through the trouble of developing a virus on his own.

Then in general scientific advancement will always be able to used for good and for evil. Take computers. One the one hand computers bring us a lot of nice things and on the other hand computers can also be used to wage war and program missiles.
Knowledge of atomic fusion produced the atomic bomb.

Nobody can tell you all the risks and all the benifits of developing a new technology.

If fold.it really works in the sense that it completely solves the protein folding and design problem that's a major technological breakthrough and the developers of fold.it won't control what kind of proteins people create.
That's a basic element of science.
We could forbid all scientific endevour to prevent people from changing the world or we allow the world to change through scientific discovery.

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genetic targets and fission

you seem to think that the Spanish flu is something to worry about, something which can be compared to the potential of a designer pathogen. Spanish flu has already been and gone, so it's virulence is less than it once was. And while I would not go so far as to say it's harmless, the virus to worry about is the one that humans have not encountered before. With naturally ocurring virii, humans have at least some intrinsic ability to survive. Even in the case of AIDS, it is well-known that there are entire genetic subsets that have inborn resistance to the virus, as first discovered within the gay community when some members of the community who "by all rights" should have succumbed and yet never even exhibited any symptoms. As was the case for the historical plagues, else we'd never have been born... In the case of an engineered virus, I'm not sure the same could be said with anything more than flippant disregard for reality and understanding of biology or science in general. The real potential of an engineered virus/toxin is that it could very well kill everyone.

Regarding the bomb, a small correction...it was fission, not fusion. That came later.

Science has a need for caution just as much as it has a need for creativity, for intelligence as much as for the myriad oxen teams to drag the logs. Lest the ox drag the log into the river, someone must occasionally speak up or watch it all go down the drain via TBLTB.

Only the asinine and the corrupt stick their heads in the sand (refuse to acknowledge reality) when unpleasant considerations regarding the potential negative application of their efforts are brought to light. This is not equivalent to saying that the idea is bad or that good cannot be achieved by pursing the technology, only that it should not be handled like the "wild west".

I'll leave you with this "scifi" prediction: Suppose that someone has cataloged the genetic markers for your "tribe". Suppose he/she/they then create or taylor a toxin or virus to attack only members who present specific markers...like yours. This does not frighten you? It frightens me. Because it is on the literal cusp of becoming reality, not SciFi. As participants of this "game", you are furthering that goal, whether it is a stated goal or simply a predictable outcome...

No one may be able to predict *every risk and benefit of emerging science, but you have to be kinda slow to think that fire can only be used to boil water and keep warm. Even the first humans who used fire for beneficial ends knew better.

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What does TBLTB

What does TBLTB mean?

Spanish flu strains are fortunately only kept at responsible Western research labs. There are plenty of pathogens kept at less responsible research labs in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere which are more of a worry. Of course, all you need to get a strain of the Spanish flu is to dig up a victim who was buried in a coffin which isolated his body. Recently, the body of Sir Mark Sykes was exhumed for exactly this reason. Whether this was successful was not reported, though the lead coffin had actually broken. Presumably a lead, bronze or steel coffin would only be accorded a high-status or wealthy individual, but even a decomposed body might provide plenty of samples, especially in colder climes than Yorkshire. And were such a strain to re-surface, there is no reason to suppose it would not be just as virulent today as then. It would not actually be difficult to start such a pandemic, but the real trouble with bio-weapons, as all good military planners recognise, is that they are too indiscriminate and slow. Take a fanatical terrorist. Is it really likely that he will go to all the trouble of finding an appropriate victim, travelling to the site of the burial, exhume the body in secret, cart off some samples to a well-concealed laboratory, cultivate the virus, infect himself and board a jetliner headed to a busy airport? What would be the result? It might work and it might not, if it did work it would probably not strike very soon, possibly in a year, 2 or even 5, and whether it did or not, the suffering inflicted would be indiscriminate and strike people of all colours and religions equally. Not to mention that anyone with the resources for culturing the virus in a lab would hardly be so insane as to approve of the plan. It is really a simple matter: anyone with the resources to use such a delicate but indiscriminate weapon would not be foolish enough to do so.

Such specifics aside, what anjen points out is quite accurate. Foldit is about democratising protein structure prediction and design. This will have immeasurable good applications, and many potential evil ones. This is true of virtually all scientific discoveries, and is not really the business of those who make them or help them along -- nor could it be. Scientists are not the ones who wield power, who make decisions. I suggest you do not worry about these problems as a scientist, i.e. do not feel ambivalent about working on the scientific goal. If you are concerned with its applications, the answer is not to cease the science, that is to act in the scientific sphere, but to act as a citizen, in the political or social sphere.

Joined: 05/19/2009
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Designing a virus from the

Designing a virus from the ground up would be a task that requires more than just gettinga way to design a protein. Nearly all designed bacteria are less able to reproduce than naturally evolved organisms. I don't think that there's necessarily reason to believe that designed organisms are alawys much more dangerous than natural ones.
If you create some gen with limits a virus to attacking a certain group of people the virus might just evolve and go after everyone.

With the prize of gen sequencing droping by a factor of ten every year I don't think you can make good prediction about the resources that will be required to cultivate a virus in the future.
The prize might drop into a range that an individual can pay.

Then you can't predict where breakthrough science that changes the world will happen and imagining a world where designing proteins produces nanofacbrication is difficult.

You basically have two choices.
a) Lock science up all around the world.
b) Do science.

Yes, doing science is still risky.

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Ah yes, but designing a

Ah yes, but designing a nerve agent for instance would be considerably simpler. In fact, that would be more targeted too. But as we agreed, science is still worth pursuing.

Joined: 05/26/2008
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Just to play devil's

Just to play devil's advocate here (A role I'm apparently well suited to)

Suppose someone did create some new form of pathogen with foldit. (I think this is very unlikely, but follow along)

Who is to say that would be a bad thing ? Even if the information were published, and the pathogen created, that act alone is not the act of in question. The real fear is the dissemination of such a creation. In fact if we were, on the off chance, to create some new form of designer "bug", what new insight and knowledge might be lost by suppression of the creation ? Perhaps it would lead to discovery of new types of treatments for an existing virus. Perhaps the study of such an object would even lead to new theories about the evolution of, and how to stop the spread and mutation of other pathogens.

Who is to say, that if it was found here, it would not be found again elsewhere ? Suppose years from now, some psychotic terrorist does decide to create a designer pathogen, and it's just like or very similar to one that is designed here and suppressed. Would we then find out that by suppressing it we are ill equipped to fight it ? Would those years we spent hiding the discovery turn out to be our own downfall because our fear drove us to deny the existence of a threat we may end up facing some day anyway ?

Would then the act of immorality in hindsight be the creation of such a thing, or hiding the knowledge of it's creation ?

Knowledge is a dangerous thing because what you don't know can be just as deadly as what you do know.

Ultimately we must place faith in our fellow human beings to do what is in the best interest of our species as a whole. If we cannot bring ourselves to do that, than we are forever doomed to live an existence of fear and lies.


Developed by: UW Center for Game Science, UW Institute for Protein Design, Northeastern University, Vanderbilt University Meiler Lab, UC Davis
Supported by: DARPA, NSF, NIH, HHMI, Amazon, Microsoft, Adobe, Boehringer Ingelheim, RosettaCommons