IBM and researchers at the University of Washington are cooperating to address the global hunger crisis.
The company announced this week that it is trying to develop rice that can yield more grain with higher nutritional values. IBM's World Community Grid will put 167 teraflops of power behind the study of rice proteins. The grid pulls computing power from volunteers around the globe who download software and donate idle time to the cause.
"This project could ultimately help farmers around the world plant better crops and stave off hunger for some," Stanley Litow, VP of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs and president of the IBM International Foundation, said in an announcement.
"There are between 30,000 and 60,000 different protein structures to study," said Ram Samudrala, associate professor in the department of microbiology at the University of Washington in Seattle and principal investigator. "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 2 years."
Computational biologists at the University of Washington created a 3-D modeling program to study the structures of the proteins in rice. Scientists hope the information will help them identify the functions of the proteins and determine which ones are likely to produce more rice grains, resist disease, ward off pests, and contain more nutrients.
The project, supported in part by a $2 million National Science Foundation grant, is expected to result in the largest and most comprehensive map of rice proteins and their functions. Agriculture specialists and farmers can use the information to choose the best plants for cultivation and traditional cross-breeding techniques. The knowledge also could help rice producers better adapt to climate changes by highlighting "super hybrids" that could be created to resist changing weather patterns.
The information also is likely to help improve understanding of other crops like corn, wheat, and barley.
"The world is experiencing three simultaneous revolutions: in molecular biology and genetics; in computational power and storage capacity; and in communications," International Rice Research Institute Director General Robert Zeigler said in an announcement. "The computational revolution allows scientists around the world to tackle almost unimaginably complex problems as a community, and in real time. While there are no silver bullets, rice production can be revitalized with the help of new technologies."
The World Community Grid allows anyone with a computer and Internet access to donate unused computer time. The computers request data from the grid's server, compute, and send the information back to the server. Screen savers tell volunteers when their computers are working on the project.
The World Community Grid also is working on projects that have helped scientists improve their understanding of genes and disease, including cancer and AIDS. The grid is the largest humanitarian computing grid, with more than 380,000-plus members from over 200 countries. Next week, it is expected to hit a milestone of linking to 1 million computers.
In six months, the grid completed HIV/AIDS research that would have otherwise taken five years, through its [email protected] project. It also just completed data collection on the [email protected] and research analysis is about to begin. The results are expected to improve understanding of how land surface changes in South Africa affect climate, said Mark Tadross, the principal investigator from the University of Cape Town in South Africa.