Grid computing used to tackle food crisis

16 May 2008

IBM and researchers at University of Washington are aiming to harness grid computing in a bid to develop stronger strains of rice to prevent famine.

The project utilises IBM’s World Community Grid, which harnesses the unused, donated power from nearly one million PCs. The processing power is 167 teraflops, equivalent to the world’s top three supercomputers.

Utilising the spare power from idle computers around the globe, the ‘Nutritious Rice for the World’ project will study rice at the atomic level and then combine it with traditional cross-breeding techniques used by farmers throughout history.

Because of the massive processing power made possible by the World Community Grid, the project can be completed in less than two years, whereas it would take over 200 years using more conventional computer systems.

“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,” said Robert Zeigler, director general of the International Rice Research Institute, based in the Philippines. “The computational revolution allows scientists around the world to tackle almost unimaginably complex problems as a community, and in real-time.”

World Community Grid will run a three-dimensional modeling program created by computational biologists at 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.

Ultimately, the 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,” explained Dr Ram Samudrala, principal investigator, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology at 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 less than two years.”

Similar use of the World Community Grid has seen the FightAIDS@Home project complete the equivalent of five years of HIV/AIDS research in just six months.

The AfricanClimate@Home project, which seeks to investigate how land surface changes affect climate, completed its data collection using the grid in record time.

“The project could not have been completed in such quick time without the help of the World Community Grid. The results will help us develop a better understanding of how land surface changes over South Africa affect the climate, as well as paving the way for later investigations of other aspects of climate,” said Mark Tadross, principal investigator, University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Anyone with a computer and internet access can be a part of the World Community Grid by visiting and downloading a free, small, secure software program onto their computers. When computers are idle, data is requested from World Community Grid’s server and the computers then perform the computations and send the results back to the server, prompting it for a new piece of work.

World Community Grid has 380,000-plus members in more than 200 countries and links to nearly one million computers.

By Niall Byrne