Community Grid Fosters Microbial Discovery

By Tiffany Trader

October 22, 2014

An international team of volunteers is putting their spare computing power to work unlocking the secrets of microbes from around the world. By plugging in to IBM’s World Community Grid, contributors are creating a supercomputer that can carry out genetic comparisons of a wide variety of tiny organisms that are too small to see with the naked eye. But don’t let their size fool you, the smallest of earth’s lifeforms have profound implications for human health, agriculture and industry.

The Uncovering Genome Mysteries project is administered by University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia and the Oswaldo Cruz Institute of Brazil. The project seeks to make about 20 quadrillion comparisons of 200 million proteins underlying a wide variety of lifeforms, such as microorganisms found on seaweeds from Australian coastlines and in the Amazon river. The computing involved in such an immense undertaking would take 40,000 continuous years on a typical PC, but the capacity of the World Community Grid will reduce the task to mere months.

Launched in 2004, IBM’s World Community Grid project uses its contributor’s idle cycles to tackle scientific research projects that benefit humanity.

“Anyone with a computer, smartphone or tablet can join and help to give us the computational power to carry out our microbe research,” says UNSW’s Associate Professor Torsten Thomas.

“A teaspoon of water can contain millions of microbes and each organism may have thousands of genes. By studying this natural treasure chest we will learn more about the role microbes play in shaping the health of our planet and the functions of millions of microbial genes,” adds Thomas.

Understanding an unknown organism starts with decoding its DNA sequence and identifying its genetic fingerprint. With recent advances in DNA sequencing technology, this is the easy part. The next step is much harder. It involves understanding the function of each gene and the protein it encodes. Although difficult and time-consuming, gaining insight into gene functions is critical for the development of potential medical and industrial applications.

Increasingly microbes are being studied for a range of industrial applications. These tiny organisms have properties that can be harnessed for solving some of society’s most pressing issues, such as drug-resistant pathogens, pollution, and energy shortages. But scientists have only scratched the surface. Less than 1 percent of microbial diversity around the globe has been documented. “Valuable discoveries await us if we can learn about the remaining 99 percent,” says Thomas.

The project’s main goal is to establish a database of protein sequence comparison information for all scientists to reference. Such a resource will assist in the identification of new gene functions, provide insight into how organisms interact with each other and the environment, and facilitate a better understanding of how microorganisms change under environmental stresses, such as climate change.

Those interested in helping with this research can sign up to donate their idle computer time to IBM’s World Community Grid here.

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