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Grid supercomputer to tackle rice crisis

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IBM and researchers at the University of Washington have launched a programme to develop stronger strains of rice that could produce crops with larger and more nutritious yields.

With the processing power of 167 teraflops, IBM’s World Community Grid will harness the unused and donated power from nearly one million individual PCs in an initiative –called the 'Nutritious Rice for the World' project - that will study rice at the atomic level and then combine it with traditional cross breeding techniques used by farmers throughout history. 

'The world is experiencing three simultaneous revolutions: in molecular biology and genetics; in computational power and storage capacity; and in communications. The computational revolution allows scientists around the world to tackle almost unimaginably complex problems as a community, and in real-time,’ said director general Robert Zeigler, of the International Rice Research Institute based in the Philippines. ‘While there are no silver bullets, rice production can be revitalised with the help of new technologies. The world community must invest now and for a long time to come.’

World Community Grid will run a three-dimensional modelling programme created by computational biologists at the University of Washington to study the structures of the proteins that make up the building blocks of rice. Understanding the structure is necessary to identify the function of those proteins and to enable researchers to identify which ones could help produce more rice grains, ward off pests, resist disease or hold more nutrients. In the end, this project will create the largest and most comprehensive map of rice proteins and their related functions, helping agriculturalists and farmers pinpoint which plants should be selected for cross-breeding to cultivate better crops.  

‘The issue is that there are between 30,000 and 60,000 different protein structures to study,’ said principal investigator, Dr Ram Samudrala, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology at the University of Washington. ‘Using traditional experimental approaches in the laboratory to identify detailed structure and function of critical proteins would take decades. Running our software program on World Community Grid will shorten the time from 200 years to fewer than 2 years.’

This project jumpstarted with a $2m grant from the National Science Foundation, which could enable rice-producing countries to become better adapted to future climate changes, because they can quickly find the right plants for cross breeding, and create 'super hybrids' that are more resistant to changing weather patterns.

This research is also important in the US and other countries, because the knowledge gained creating the 3D models can be easily transferred to other cereal crops such as corn, wheat, and barley.  

World Community Grid is fast approaching its own milestone, expecting to hit next week, as the grid reaches one million registered computers helping to advance scientific research. Each week, thousands of people sign on to this project that has significantly advanced several research projects on diseases like cancer and AIDS. The nutritious rice project is the latest to use the grid, and could have a major impact on global health.

‘This project could ultimately help farmers around the world plant better crops and stave off hunger for some,’ said Stanley Litow, vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs, and president of the IBM International Foundation. 

Anyone with a computer and Internet access can be a part of the solution. To donate unused computer time, individuals register on http://www.worldcommunitygrid.org/ and install a free, small, secure software program onto their computers. When computers are idle, data is requested from World Community Grid’s server. These computers then perform the computations, and send the results back to the server, prompting it for a new piece of work.  A screen saver will tell individuals when their computers are being used.

World Community Grid, the largest public humanitarian grid in existence, has 380,000-plus members who represent more than 200 countries and links to nearly one million computers. It is the volunteers that help make the difference, because as each one shares their computer time, scientists are able to conduct their research faster. For example, the AfricanClimate@Home project just completed its data collection, and research analysis will now begin.

In addition, the Cancer Institute of New Jersey earned a $2.5m research grant from the National Institute of Health in 2007 based on the Help Defeat Cancer project that ran on World Community Grid. The FightAIDS@Home project completed the equivalent of five years of HIV/AIDS research in just six months. Five other projects are now running on World Community Grid, and additional projects are in the pipeline.