Lend researchers computing power and they’ll use it to study your microbiome

bacteria

Who better to study what lives inside you than, well, you? IBM certainly agrees, and now, the company has teamed up with the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of California San Diego, and the Flatiron Institute to form the Microbiome Immunity Project. It’s described as an IBM-facilitated citizen science project that will take advantage of the “surplus processing power on volunteers’ computers to conduct millions of virtual experiments on behalf of the researchers.” The goal? To map the three million bacterial genes found in your microbiome — which is to say, the bacteria that lives in and on you.

The hope is that this collective science experiment will help scientists gain a deeper understanding of the microbiome’s interaction with our own biochemistry, and thereby examine how these interactions could affect certain diseases, including Type 1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis. These afflictions already plague hundreds of millions of individuals around the world, but a microbiome study holds out the hope of improved treatment and possibly prevention, of these diseases.

So why haven’t these studies been done before? The problem with conducting this experiment on your own (or on anyone’s own), is that it would require massive supercomputing processing power. And while a single supercomputer might have trouble dealing with so much data, a whole lot of normal computers could do the trick. As such, IBM is actually crowdsourcing computing power by way of IBM’s World Community Grid.

“This type of research on the human microbiome, on this scale, has not been done before,” said Dr. Ramnik Xavier, Institute member and co-director of the infectious disease and microbiome program. “It’s only possible with massive computational power.”

To participate, you need only to download a secure software program that will automatically sense when your computer can offer spare processing power. In those times, IBM will tap your machine to run virtual experiments on behalf of the scientists. The data that comes out of these millions of experiments from across the country will ultimately be analyzed by the project’s team. And in keeping with the crowdsourcing theme, this data will be made publicly available to other scientists, hopefully improving our capacity to treat autoimmune diseases.

As Dr. Rob Knight, Director of the Center for Microbiome Innovation at UC San Diego noted, “By harnessing the efforts of volunteers, we can do something that exceeds the scale of what we have access to by a factor of thousands. For the first time, we’re bringing a comprehensive structural biology picture to the whole microbiome, rather than solving structures one at a time in a piecemeal fashion.”