Monday, July 10, 2006

Quantum Biology Pushing Computing Technology

Many have heard of areas of science such as quantum mechanics, biochemistry, biophysics, physical chemistry, and so on. One growing area that has not received much popular attention is quantum biology, which looks at biological processes at the molecular and atomic scale, where weak but relevant quantum effects are helping to drive different biochemical reactions, as well as the processes involving energy conversion, such as light into chemical. Look at some specific projects here. Another significant aspect of these studies involves doing computational computer simulations of such reactions and biological processes. For example, for the first time, a group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), led by Prof. Klaus Schulten, has done a full blown, atom-by-atom simulation of an entire life form. It sounds crazy, but this is the level the science is at presently.

UIUC is home to one of a handful of National Supercomputing Centers, and the Schulten group ran a simulation of the satellite tobacco mosaic virus, which consists of abot a million atoms in total. For 100 days, they ran a simulation of a 50-nanosecond time interval to see how every atom behaves and could therefore map all the processes occuring in the virus for that time period. Now, this doesn't sound like much...only a 50-nanosecond interval. But to get better and longer intervals to study, new computing schemes are necessary and are being developed. For example, at UIUC there is work being done to advance into the next level of computing power, the petascale computer (a thousand trillion calculations per second; currently supercomputers are in the terascale range, or only a trillion calculations per second. Compare to most home PCs which are in the gigascale range, or billions). The simulations being done by such groups would take an estimated 35 years on a home PC, so this gives a good comparison to see how advanced supercomuting platforms are. The importance of such simulations is to get a handle on all behaviors of something like a virus, which are being focused on because of their relative simplicity (no simulations of, say, humans, will be possible any time soon) as well as for medical research where molecular medications may be developed (using nanotechnology) that can be effective against a particular harmful virus.

2 comments:

James said...

That's the coolest thing I've seen in a while. I really hope to someday be doing reseach in a field like that.

vonny said...

Hi James,

You are coming up at the right time. I see fields like this, where multidisciplinary work is the rule and not the exception in the pursuit of studying complex systems, as the dominant areas of study in this century. Go for it!!