NSF touts role of supercomputer in autism, neuroscience discoveries

Are supercomputers the superheroes needed to overcome Big Data challenges? The National Science Foundation has drawn a clear picture about how its $20 million investment in a supercomputer called "Gordon" could pay dividends for hunters of new therapies against autism-spectrum disorders and other neurological illnesses.

Named after comic book hero Flash Gordon, the superfast computer, launched at the University of California, San Diego, in 2009, played a role in illuminating how transcription factor networks and groups of genes work or are expressed at certain times during brain development. The research from UCSD and others in the U.S. and France pinpointed "master transcription factors" that could be targeted for new autism or schizophrenia treatments. The supercomputer-enabled study was reported last month in the journal Genes, Brains and Behavior.

The research comes as the scientific community and others ask hard questions about what researchers have really come to understand about biology after huge investments in genomic discovery. As the refrain goes, amassing mountains of data from DNA sequencing and other methods is the easy part. It's much more difficult today to draw real knowledge about how organisms function from the enormous data sets. At least some people believe that supercomputers will be important tools for scientists to pull needles of knowledge from proverbial haystacks of Big Data.

"We live in the unique time when huge amounts of data related to genes, DNA, RNA, proteins, and other biological objects have been extracted and stored," stated Igor Tsigelny, a research scientist at the San Diego Supercomputer Center as well as with UCSD's Moores Cancer Center and its Department of Neurosciences.

"I can compare this time to a situation when the iron ore would be extracted from the soil and stored as piles on the ground," Tsigelny added. "All we need is to transform the data to knowledge, as ore to steel. Only the supercomputers and people who know what to do with them will make such a transformation possible."

The UCSD crowd has been beefing up its IT capabilities to overcome data challenges for researchers in life sciences and other fields. As The New York Times reported last week, the campus is unveiling a new optical fiber network called "Prism" to move 100 billion bits of data per second.

- here's the NSF's release