Jumping to Warp Speed

Staff Writer

Washington, D.C.--The DNA sequencing company Celera Genomics, which already claims to own the fastest private computer in the world, today joined a government-backed partnership aimed at building even more powerful new machines for biological research.

The project's main sponsor, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), plans to back the venture by pumping $10 million of R&D into the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Celera, based in Rockville, Maryland, will kick in an unspecified amount of support, in the "millions of dollars," according to Celera president Craig Venter. The third partner, Compaq Computer Corp. of Houston, Texas, will contribute an undisclosed share of its hardware development budget, which runs to "hundreds of millions of dollars," according to vice president Bill Blake.

The two companies announced the deal here at DOE headquarters, where they signed a pledge to collaborate with DOE for the next 4 years. Venter said his job in the partnership was to identify the difficult problems that need to be solved, such as questions about how proteins interact within living cells. Compaq brings an expertise in designing and manufacturing computer hardware. Sandia chief Paul Robinson said his lab will contribute a large cadre of experts who have successfully developed supercomputers in the past.

The main goal, Robinson says, is to develop a new computer that will use parallel processors to achieve a speed of 100 trillion floating point operations per second--a 50-fold increase in speed over the system Celera uses today. Venter said that biology will require even faster supercomputers in the future to model events within living organisms. Even simple tasks, such as sequencing genomes, will benefit, he said. Venter noted that it took his research team 11 days to assemble the genome of a bacterium 5 years ago. Using its current supercomputer, Celera first cut the time to 9 hours, and then, with improved software, to about 5 minutes. But the demands of genomic research are growing so rapidly, Venter said, that "we need to be able to do that work in seconds."

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