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TACC Supercomputers Help Researchers Design Useful Organisms

Can scientists enlist bacteria to help save the planet? University of Texas professor Jeffrey Barrick is using TACC supercomputers to understand radical mutations and design artificial organisms.

As described in the September 2012 issue of Nature, Barrick’s research studied the rapid evolution of E. coli to trace key changes that lead to an evolutionary innovation. Using next-generation DNA sequencers and the powerful Lonestar and Ranger supercomputers at TACC, he was able to test 40 genomes from the population and trace the key changes that potentiated the mutation and showed the role of promoter capture and altered gene regulation in evolutionary innovations.

I think a lot about the engineering aspect: making bacteria do useful things,” Barrick said. “I would like bacteria to solve our energy crisis, whether that means making biofuels or something crazy like putting molecular motors in algae that push water to run a generator.”

Across the field, advanced computing is allowing researchers like Barrick to analyze genomes, develop and test synthetic organisms, and experiment with artificial populations, all of which help scientists explore evolution on a far finer-grained level.

When this E. coli experiment started, all they could measure was fitness. They had no clue why certain E. coli strains were better,” Barrick said. “Now we can understand at the molecular level what’s going on, and that’s really powerful.”

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