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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

IBM Is Seeking Biology's 'Holy Grail'

NEW YORK -- IBM is seeking to unlock the secrets of the human body with a supercomputer 1,000 times more powerful than the chess-playing Deep Blue.

IBM said Monday it will build a computer called Blue Gene to solve the mysteries of how proteins, the workhorse molecules and building blocks of the body, get their shape.

Paul Horn, senior vice president of research at IBM, said such a computer could provide crucial understanding of severe diseases like hepatitis and AIDS.

"With this project we have a chance not only to change the future of computing, but also the future of health care," Horn said.

IBM expects it will take up to five years and $100 million to build the computer, which will be a million times faster than the average desktop computer. It will perform 1 million billion mathematical operations per second, 500 times more than the fastest computer today.

Stan Burt, a researcher in computational biology at the National Cancer Institute in Fredrick, Maryland, said the problem of analyzing proteins is "one of the Holy Grails of biology."

"Many diseases can be traced back to problems involving proteins," he said, naming high blood pressure and the common cold as examples.

Knowing the structure of the proteins involved could allow scientist to tailor drugs to lock on to the proteins and block them, or change their function, he said.

Proteins are strings that fold into complex shapes. The shape largely determines how the protein works in the body, whether it transports oxygen in the blood, like hemoglobin, or breaks up molecules of fat to digest food.

The problem for scientists is that the way a protein goes from a string to a functional shape is very complicated. Each protein "chain" can be made up of more than a thousand links, and each link can have 10 different configurations.

"There are more pathways for the folding of a single protein ... than there are atoms in the universe," Horn said.

Proteins fold in a fraction of second in the human body, yet IBM estimates that even Blue Gene will take a year to compute the folding process for a single protein with 300 links in the chain.

To accomplish its tasks, Blue Gene will have 1 million processors - the central computing engines of computers - working together.

With this many parts, the computer has to be able to "heal" itself by detecting failing components, sealing them off, and directing the work elsewhere.

Henry Dietz, a computer engineer at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, said IBM's proposed design seemed sound, but was not a radical step forward.

"The system software is going to be very tough," he said. There have been a lot of attempts to make self-healing software and hardware systems. It's been a very difficult to make it really work."

In 1997, IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer defeated the world's greatest chess player, Garry Kasparov, in a highly publicized tournament.

Armonk, New York-based IBM credits the technological advances and the media attention generated by the Deep Blue project with helping it become the largest supplier of supercomputers in the world, with a market share of one third.

The new Blue Gene computer will be built and operated at IBM's Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York.