Intel, Microsoft and distributed computing firm United Devices teamed up with cancer researchers this week to ask the internet community for help in defeating bio-terrorist attacks.
By downloading a screensaver at www.intel.com/cure web users can donate their PC's spare resources to finding a cure for anthrax.
Bearing similarities to the SETI search for extraterrestrial life, the system works by creating a virtual supercomputer made up of internet connected boxes which are running idle.
Once installed, the screensaver will download a chunk of data to analyse when the machine is not in use and send it back to the research centre when it has finished the number crunching.
Such a virtual supercomputer is capable of analysing billions of molecules in a fraction of the time it would take in a laboratory.
Professor Graham Richards, scientific director of the project at Oxford University, explained that scientists were finding short and long term benefits of distributed computing efforts.
"Particularly with anthrax and other related bio-terrorist threats, speed to discovery is of the essence," he said. "Without this technology, and the support of the coalition, there would be no other way to tackle such a tremendous task."
The anthrax cure system is based on another project set up by United Devices to find a cure for cancer. The Cancer Research Project harnessed the computing power of 1.3 million PCs around the world giving scientists access to a virtual supercomputer more powerful than the world's 10 largest supercomputers combined.
Results of the project will be made available to the US government, the UK Chief Scientist and other friendly governments for further development and research.
Dr Sujuan Ba, science director for the National Foundation for Cancer Research, said: "Because tumour cells assemble deadly molecules the same way harmful bacteria create toxins, cancer research can shed valuable light on other diseases and create new medicines.
"With the computational power of over one million computers we hope to find the 'silver bullet' that will stop anthrax from continuing as a terrorist weapon."
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