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Technology award puts Canada at forefront of efforts to simulate life on computer


Toronto, ON and Edmonton, AB May 26, 2003 University of Alberta researchers have begun work on developing a virtual cell that lives only in cyberspace. The ultimate goal is to create a research tool that will help to cut health care costs, speed the development of new drugs and test new treatments.

The Canadian researchers, working at the University of Alberta’s Institute of Biomolecular Design, are creating a virtual version of an E coli cell. The CyberCell project, aided by a technology award from IBM, will create a simulation of an E coli cell in order to develop the knowledge and technology to simulate more complex living organisms.

“Our challenge is to anticipate where the science is moving so that we can position Canada at the forefront of what is certain to be the largest international effort of this century,” says Dr Mike Ellison, director of the Institute of Biomolecular Design and lead on the CyberCell project.

The institute’s scientists will be able to manipulate the virtual cell at different levels of molecular resolution and study how the cell responds, adapts and exploits its virtual environment.

“Rational drug design is now going to have the added dimension of being able to quickly predict not only the targeted effects of new drug compounds but also the physiological side effects of new compounds,” says Dr Ellison. “From the perspective of genetic engineering, new gene combinations could be metabolically tested and optimized."

Project CyberCell is Canada’s contribution to an escalating international effort to simulate living systems computationally. The Canadian arm of the project is a consortium of researchers from Canadian universities and research institutions that is headquartered in Alberta.

Dr Ellison says that simulations are being developed elsewhere in the US and Japan, for example but that the Canadian efforts differ as they are based on a arithmetical model, rather than mathematical models. The Canadian approach means the virtual cell will ultimately be easier to track on a computer, as it will "exist" in time and space.

In addition to providing key computing elements to Project CyberCell, IBM is contributing performance-enhancing software tools and specialized applications specific to life sciences research. Access to researchers in IBM’s Computational Biology Centre who have deep subject matter expertise and a strong affinity with biological modeling applications will also be provided.

The high-performance computer server provided through the IBM Shared University Research Award is an IBM eServer pSeries 690 with more than a terabyte of storage capacity.

As higher capacity computers become available in the coming years, the feasibility for creating and studying the virtual cell over time will increase, according to Dr Ellison. He points out that the E coli model will require phenomenal computing power to make the virtual cell come "alive", including being able to track 100 million biomolecules in 3D space, manage 20,000 distinct chemical species and coordinate 10,000 coupled reactions. He estimates that the computer power to create 100 minutes of E coli "live" will be available within the next ten years.