Monday, November 08, 2010

3 university programs using WCG to accelerate research

How could you make supporting medical research more gratifying than writing a check?

One initiative is including volunteers in a greater part of the scientific journey toward a life-changing solution.

Meet a new breed of innovator: a citizen researcher.

On IBM's World Community Grid (WCG), there is an unprecedented effort to deploy ordinary people's idle computers to create a free, open-source lab for researchers around the globe.

Since the tech giant launched the nearly $2-million-a-year project in November 2004, more than half a million people in 218 countries have volunteered some 1.5 million laptops and desktops.  Massive computational research is broken down into discrete problems and distributed across a vast network. In raw computing power, the grid is comparable to a top-10 supercomputer. The average PC would take more than 328,000 years to complete the grid's calculations so far.

Three university research programs were featured in Fast Company in relation the project.
  1. Researcher Al├ín Aspuru-Guzik, an assistant professor of chemistry at Harvard, says WCG "gives you the opportunity to do something nobody else has done. Something disruptive." 
  2. Scientists at the University of Washington are using WCG to compile a comprehensive map of rice proteins, which could help developing countries grow more nutritious, higher-yield crops.
  3. Stanley Watowich, a biochemist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, uses WCG to model in algorithms what happens between a small molecule and a protein related to dengue fever, West Nile virus, and hepatitis C. His virtual experiments analyze millions of possibilities in months, as opposed to more time-consuming and expensive wet-lab experiments that might examine only hundreds. The first stage winnowed the molecules to several thousand that plug into binding sites on a dozen proteins, like puzzle pieces, says Watowich. The second stage narrows the field again, evaluating the binding energy of those candidates and the proteins, a highly complex computation that's practical only on a large grid. The idea is to reserve lab time for the molecules with the greatest chance of becoming effective drugs. "This has the potential to be a game-changing approach," says Watowich.  Without WCG, he couldn't have pursued this path. "We've worked with supercomputers before," he says, "but there's no way we could say, 'We'd like half your supercomputer for the next six months. Would that be a problem?' " Watowich conducted experiments on a 1,000-computer test grid of his own, but even a network that small took six months to get up and running and proved demanding to maintain. "Now," he says, "IBM does the heavy lifting."
Click here to learn more about the WCG project – and even how to join the effort.

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