File this under unexpected uses for IT's capabilities, another in a list of ways that the computing industry is working on environmental issues far afield from the data center.
In this case, far afield is a fairly apt description: IBM and the University of Washington announced today that their "Nutritious Rice for the World" project is proceeding apace -- and actually ahead of schedule -- toward its goal of improving the productivity of rice paddies, as well as maximizing the nutrients a bowl of rice can provide.
The rice project is one of six underway at the World Community Grid, a virtual supercomputer that exists when individual computer owners around the world donate the hours their computers are idling to crunching complex numbers for the project. IBM says that over 400,000 users have downloaded the grid program and are working on the rice project.
According to the UW page for the Nutritious Rice project, the computing resources are used to predict the structure and function of rice proteins, and predict how they'll interact with other proteins, DNA, RNA and nutrients. The long-term goal of the project is to:
... help farmers use marker assisted breeding to produce better rice strains with higher crop yields, greater disease and pest resistance, and that will provide a full range of bioavailable nutrients thereby benefiting those in regions where hunger and nutrient deficiency is a critical concern.
Without IBM's grid computing assistance, the project would have taken decades, the UW researchers say, but by harnessing hundreds of thousands of idling computers, they've reached their goal three months ahead of schedule, and researchers are now moving on to analyze the gene data.
Rice has long been the target of well intentioned groups for a simple reason: rice is the main food staple of more than half of the world's population (and more than 2 billion people in Asia get as much as 70 percent of their daily calories from rice and rice products), according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.
For non-profits and NGOs, providing more and healthier rice to developing nations is a goal in and of itself; more profit-oriented groups have been working on ways to gain some extra revenue from reinventing the world's most popular grain. Biotech company Syngenta's http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_rice Golden Rice 2 project is one of the more notable of the latter category.
Other projects in the hopper at the World Community Grid include clean energy research and working on cures for cancer, AIDS and dengue fever. Check them out at http://www.worldcommunitygrid.org.
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