ISU HPC: Helping to Feed the World

Iowa State's High Performance Computing (HPC) researchers use powerful computers to help shape our world. Some design buildings; others test the laws of physics. For Professor James Reecy, HPC is the gateway to not just advancing the world, but evolving how we feed it, too.

"If we looked at different breeds or different species, HPC would allow us to try to elucidate evolutionary events that take place. What makes the difference between a beef cow and a water buffalo? How much milk will a certain breed make? What is the genetic variation that is beneficial to humans when consumed?," Reecy said.

James Reecy, Professor of Animal Science in Animal Breeding and Genetics at Iowa State

Professor of Animal Science in Animal Breeding and Genetics, Reecy has been programming since the early 1980s. His focus shifted to biology, bringing him to genetics in 1999. Ten years later, Reecy's interests began to merge with computers once again, this time in the form of HPC.

A large concern for this type of research is how we're supposed to feed the world when, by 2050, the population is estimated to exceed nine billion. Reecy said that on top of that, today's customers are looking for more nutrient-dense food like milks, cheeses, and meat.

"We use the computers primarily to process next-generation sequencing in order to identify genetic variants in beef cattle, water buffalo, chicken, camels, and also to look at gene expression levels in different tissues," Reecy said. "We also use it to evaluate the metagenome of cattle."

What does this mean for those outside of the research labs? Reecy's work with HPC isn't just about analyzing what makes up food and animals; its other main goal is to figure out how this knowledge can feed the world.

"Anything you can think of becomes possible because you can process the sequence data, find the genetic variants, associate the trait, and then select the next generation for improvement," Reecy said.

"So you have this massive increase in growth, but you also have this increased demand for product where it's been suggested that we will almost have to double the amount of animal protein produced in the world between now and 2050," Reecy said. "This is what we're figuring out."

Concern for production of these goods also comes with the issue of making sure they're safe for consumption. A big aspect of Reecy's work is finding more efficient ways to raise these animals so they're more nutritious, healthier, and require less treatment for diseases, malnourishment, etc.

Reecy is grateful for what he's been able to do with HPC technology. With tasks like condensing billions of pieces of data into only a few million, as well as predicting what could be in store for the world's agricultural future, HPC allows research to be done at a pace never seen before.

"For what we do, I think [HPC] is going to become more and more important. Unless people figure out how to utilize high performance computing, they're not going to be able to address these grand challenges that limit our ability to feed the world in 2050. It is a tool in which researchers have to master in order to increase their effectiveness," Reecy said.