Frontier is an exascale computer planned for delivery at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility in 2021. The system will support a wide range of scientific applications for advanced modeling and simulation, as well as high-performance data analytics and artificial intelligence. In the “Science at Exascale” Q&A series, researchers working on these next-generation scientific applications discuss what they hope to achieve on Frontier.

A team at the US Department of Energy‘s (DOE’s) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) led by Dan Jacobson, Chief Scientist for Computational Systems Biology, uses supercomputers to study the genomics of individual organisms and their adaptations to global climate patterns. Based on climate and environmental variables from the last 50 years, the researchers used Summit to map the agricultural potential of land around the globe.

Using a new algorithm embedded in their Combinatorial Metrics (CoMet) code base, the team performed this massive scientific calculation on Summit in 3 hours, a feat that would have taken 133 years on a different system. These simulations could inform precision agriculture, a field in which scientists develop plant genotypes optimized to thrive in certain environments. Improving this practice could provide the growing human population with a more reliable supply of energy and food, which could lead to a host of benefits including more efficient economies, healthier local and global communities, and more precise conservation efforts.

With Frontier’s exascale capabilities, the team plans to develop an even higher resolution version of this global analysis to continue addressing these long-term issues and observe whether ecosystems remain sustainable as climate patterns change. By combining this data with results from related research focused on uncovering genetic factors that shape human systems biology, the team could develop increasingly holistic approaches to better understand life on earth.

In this interview, Jacobson explains how he plans to use Frontier to map and better understand global climate patterns. Knowledge of these patterns could guide scientists as they optimize plant genotypes for precision agriculture.

You recently used a code called Combinatorial Metrics (CoMet) to study genomic data on Summit. Is this research related to your current project?

Jacobson: Yes. Last year, we were the first group to break the exascale barrier with a performance of 2.36 exaflops on Summit, which is still the fastest calculation ever done. Our current project is significantly bigger and is running at close to the same speed. We are implementing new algorithms in CoMet to look at global climate patterns, and our overall goal is to integrate information from both projects. We aim to better understand how life works at a molecular level by studying first how the interactions among the molecules in a cell lead to emergent properties, traits, and phenotypes of an organism, and then how that organism interacts with the environment at a population scale, and finally how that population has adapted to climate. This effort spans from the small-scale of single nucleotides in genomes all the way up to planetary-scale climate patterns.

How could this work affect individuals and communities?

Jacobson: Last year’s genomics work will help us to determine that some patients have underlying genetic predispositions for substance abuse and other conditions, which could lead to more effective methods of precision medicine that would include preventing and curing diseases and mitigating the opioid epidemic. In addition to having biomedical applications, our current research could have an impact on the economies, agriculture, bioenergy, conservation, and ecosystems of local and global communities. Precision agriculture based on climate and environmental variables such as nutrient layers in soil, temperature, and water availability (among many others) could be used to bioengineer crops that thrive in specific environments to more efficiently produce bioenergy and food. Similarly, human disease can be dependent on local environmental conditions, a phenomenon this work could help explain.

What aspects of Frontier will allow you to do science that is not possible today?

Jacobson: As the compute power increases, it provides new opportunities to obtain more and more details regarding the interactions that are driving organisms, ecosystems, and global climate patterns. With Frontier, we could potentially produce even higher resolution calculations to better understand the dynamics of complex systems. Summit is allowing us to do work that was science fiction a year ago, and we expect to see similar leaps with the extreme speed of Frontier, which will make new science possible that we can’t do today such as the development of even more massive global models. That ability is embedded in the architectures that are being planned for Frontier, from the chips and the memory footprint to the accelerators and the backplane, which will simply allow us to ask questions that are impossible now.

UT-Battelle LLC manages Oak Ridge National Laboratory for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit