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Iowa State University Supercomputer

Iowa State University Supercomputer
To Help Decipher Corn Genome

AMES, Iowa
Scientists at Iowa State University are using one of the nation’s most powerful computers to help decipher the corn genome, a project that could allow them to expand the plant’s uses in plastics, fuel and fiber.
To determine how a corn genome — the basic genetic structure of the plant — is put together, scientists must assemble more than 60 million bits of genetic material.

Such a complicated process generally takes two to three months to complete, says Dr. Srinivas Aluru, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at ISU. But scientists at the university are planning to use the $1.25 million IBM BlueGene supercomputer, which has the equivalent processing power of more than 2,000 home computers, to cut that time down to just days. The supercomputer can perform as many as 5.7 trillion calculations per second.

Understanding the genome will allow plant biologists to “build a better corn plant that, for example, produces biodegradable plastic or ethanol,” says Dr. Patrick S. Schnable, an agronomy professor and director of the Center for Plant Genomics at ISU.

ISU is one of four universities working on the corn genome project, which is scheduled to take about three years.

The BlueGene/L computer is the 73rd most powerful supercomputer in the world, according to a list compiled by scientists at the University of Mannheim in Germany, the University of Tennessee and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

It was financed with a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and $650,000 from the university.

Besides the corn genome project, scientists hope to use the supercomputer to help understand protein networks in organisms, which can lead to breakthroughs in disease research.

Such networks can involve 30,000 proteins interacting with each other, too many calculations for the typical computer to perform in adequate time, says Dr. Bob Jernigan, professor of biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology at ISU.

“It’s the unavailability of computers of this magnitude that limits many projects in engineering and computer science. This can have an important influence on all kinds of research,” he says.

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