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Researchers Turn to Supercomputing to Find Malaria's Soft Spot


Modeling Malaria

Alexey Romanov, via iStockphoto.com

Understanding the nuances of infectious diseases--in particular malaria, which killed about one million people worldwide in 2008--is a crucial step toward wiping them out. However, getting a clear picture of how malaria spreads and how it responds to eradication efforts means accessing a daunting amount of data from a variety of sources, the type of job best suited to a number-crunching supercomputer.

Supercomputers, once the privilege of a select few universities and government laboratories, have become redefined in recent years so as to make them more accessible to smaller research labs as well. This includes a team from Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue, Wash., that is taking advantage of the speed and power of a supercomputer brought online over the past year to create complex simulations they hope will reveal solutions to complex problems, including the spread of malaria.

Intellectual Ventures' supercomputer is a work in progress that is shared by two different teams of researchers within the organization--one studying malaria (pdf) and the other, called TerraPower, studying nuclear reactor technology. The malaria project got off the ground in 2007, after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation called upon Intellectual Ventures to develop new technologies to fight malaria. This spawned the idea of using computer models to simulate the spread of the disease worldwide.

The supercomputer consists of 138 Dell blade servers running multiple processing units (or cores) on each server, for a total of 1,104 cores. Intellectual Ventures generally devotes 1,024 of the cores to TerraPower, the rest to its malaria research. The researchers chose Microsoft Windows as its operating system (Linux is also commonly used in supercomputing clusters) because the system administrators at their facility are familiar with Microsoft software. It didn't hurt that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is investing in both the TerraPower and malaria projects, and that Intellectual Ventures itself was formed by former Microsoft executives Nathan Myhrvold and Edward Jung.

From Scientific American
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