NEW YORK, Jan 19 – Celera’s new collaboration with Compaq and the Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories, in which it will help develop a supercomputer capable of 100 trillion operations per second by 2004, is aimed at harnessing the processing power necessary to solve the next big problem of life sciences—integrating genomic and proteomic information into a systematic understanding of human biological functions in order to better understand health and disease, Celera CEO Craig Venter said at a formal agreement signing Friday.
“This partnership is a major part of the push to go from the genome map to [integrated] biology,” said Venter. “A couple of years ago, when we started Celera, most people thought high-end computing was not going to be a key part of biology." Then, he added, “the assembly [of the genome] completed last June took 20,000 CPU hours. Now, it’s clear to the biological community that biology can’t proceed without high-end computing. Our biggest limitation right now is in computing.”
The computer under development would have 80 times the computing power that Celera’s supercomputer now has. Currently, Celera’s computers can process fewer than two teraflops (or trillion operations) per second.
Meanwhile, Sandia Lab is completing a 30-teraflop computer soon, and Venter indicated at the signing ceremony he would like to test some of Celera’s algorithms on that computer. This enhanced speed could allow Celera to solve more complex, larger biological problems, he indicated.
“What took nine hours two years ago,” Venter said, “is now down to five minutes. “But now we need to take the computation that takes five minutes to a few seconds in order to solve the large problems of biology.”
Still, Venter cautioned that it would be ten to twenty years before computers could fully simulate the biological development from an egg and sperm into 100 trillion cells.
Additionally, Celera may also share its sequence information with the DOE, one of the collaborators in the public effort to sequence the genome, Venter said. “But not under this collaboration,” he quickly added, indicating that any deal on sequence information would have to be worked out separately from the current collaboration.
In the project Celera’s scientists will work directly with Sandia’s scientists on developing algorithms for biology.
The Department of Energy is investing $10 million in the joint project, which represents a major shift for Sandia National Laboratories. Until now, the scientists at Sandia worked on supercomputing problems that would simulate nuclear explosions.
“We in the nuclear weapons industry felt for many years that nothing could be more complex than nuclear physics,” said Paul Robinson, president of Sandia National Laboratories, at the signing. " But nothing beats the complexity of biological sciences, the human genome and challenges that are ahead,” he added.
Venter later said he was glad that a physicist was finally recognizing that biology was more complex than physics.