This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the new coronavirus. yellow, emerging from the surface of cells, blue/pink, cultured in the lab. Credit: AP

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With his facility idle in the midst of the statewide lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic, Shawn Laatsch, director of the Jordan Planetarium at the Emera Astronomy Center at the University of Maine in Orono, was looking for some way to put it to good use.

Given the huge computing power required to operate the planetarium’s state-of-the-art visualizations of the universe — and of microscopic- and molecular-level structures — it only made sense to offer up its technological resources to the scientific community.

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For the past week or so, the Jordan Planetarium has been running programs on its visualizers for researchers at a laboratory at the University of Washington, in order to visualize and predict the behavior of proteins. Those proteins may end up being used in the development of new diagnostics and even therapies to treat COVID-19.

Laatsch knew from a presentation on proteins, given by UMaine virology professor Melissa Maginnis just last month, that their systems could greatly aid in those research efforts.

“Since our systems are able to show proteins in our dome, I started searching for a way to actively use our facility to assist in research to fight COVID-19,” said Laatsch. “After about three hours of working online with our system vendor we were ready to go.”

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The Jordan Planetarium is just the second planetarium in the country to join in on the program; the first was the Frost Planetarium in Miami.

The platform that allows UMaine’s planetarium to run those programs is called the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, or BOINC for short, and was founded by the University of California at Berkeley. It connects research projects around the world that require extensive computing power with remote computers, allowing them to connect to their systems and run programs to advance their research.

“It [essentially] creates a virtual massive supercomputer,” said Laatsch.

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The Jordan Planetarium runs on the Sky-Skan Definiti visualization system, the most advanced in Maine, giving its normal star shows, scientific presentations and other programming ultra high-definition. Sky-Skan, a New Hampshire-based company, worked with Laatsch to connect their system with the BOINC program. It’s now running a program called Rosetta@home, which predicts the shapes of proteins and eventually produces new, stable mini-proteins to be used in various medical applications.

Rosetta@home can be used by anyone with a computer, running in the background and sending results to the main lab at the University of Washington. With the Jordan Planetarium’s massive computers sitting in disuse for the time being, however, it can devote all its computer power to the program.

“Knowledge gained from studying these viral proteins may be used to guide the design of vaccines and antiviral drugs to fight this COVID-19 pandemic,” said Laatssch. “We look forward to more of these in the future when we can resume operations and using the planetarium in a way that promotes health in our community.”

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.