Lab's ASCI supercomputer comes of age

On October 28, 1999, Lawrence Livermore and IBM celebrated the "coming of age" of their Blue Pacific supercomputer with a special ceremony at the Laboratory. This machine, part of the Department of Energy's Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI) has been developed and delivered in several stages over the past three years. It has become a mature and powerful tool for maintaining the safety, reliability, and performance of the nation's nuclear stockpile.
Created by IBM, Blue Pacific performs at nearly 4 trillion operations per second, applying all of its 5,856 processors in parallel to a single computational problem. The massive supercomputer is connected by nearly 8 kilometers (5 miles) of cable and occupies an area covering some 750 square meters (8,000 square feet).
With all of the critical elements-software and code development, a functional problem-solving environment, interconnect and communication capabilities, data storage facilities-now in place, ASCI's Blue Pacific has emerged as a fully functional supercomputer to help fulfill the requirements of DOE's Stockpile Stewardship Program.
The October ceremony included presentations by Laboratory Director Bruce Tarter, DOE Deputy Assistant Secretary for Research, Development, and Simulation Gilbert G. Weigand, and IBM Senior Vice President for Technology and Manufacturing Nicholas M. Donofrio. A sampling of breakthrough research calculations performed on the new computer was highlighted.
The ceremony also included a preview of Option White, currently being built by IBM as an extension of Blue Pacific. Able to perform 10 trillion operations per second, Option White has three times the capacity and capabilities of Blue Pacific. It is scheduled for demonstration in March 2000, with delivery to Lawrence Livermore planned for the summer of 2000.
Contact: Susan Houghton (925) 422-9919 (houghton3@llnl.gov).

Lab studies smoking effects on newborns

A team led by James Tucker from Livermore's Biology and Biotechnology Research Program Directorate has been awarded a $1.8-million grant from the California Tobacco Related Disease Research Program to study the effects of smoking on newborns. In particular, the team wants to know if babies born to mothers who smoked during pregnancy have more chromosome damage than babies born to nonsmokers.
Tucker and team members Marilyn Ramsey and Dave Nelson will study blood samples taken from 300 mothers and from the fetal side of the placentas of their newborn babies.
This research grows out of the team's earlier investigation of the theory that as people age, the amount of chromosome damage increases. For part of its work, the team analyzed umbilical cord blood from newborns delivered at a local hospital, and according to Tucker, it saw a significantly high amount of genetic damage in babies of smokers.
Tucker explained further, "We know that tobacco causes cancer. This is a special case of second-hand tobacco exposure. Unborn babies are at a very vulnerable stage of development. They have no choice about being exposed to tobacco carcinogens. [Now] we also want to look at susceptibility. Are some mothers or newborns more susceptible to chromosome damage? The answer to this question may tell us whether some people are at greater-than-average risk of getting cancer as a result of tobacco exposure."
Contact: James Tucker (925) 423-8154 (tucker5@llnl.gov).

Potential for improving gene therapy reported

In the October 1999 issue of Science, a Laboratory team reported that it has developed a possible method to make gene therapy more effective. The team also announced the discovery of a key step in fertility.
The researchers analyzed the interactions of a single molecule of DNA and a protamine, a small protein with positive charges that allow it to bind to DNA.
One problem of gene therapy-the introduction of new genes into the body to replace defective genes that may cause a disease-is incorporating the genes into cells without damaging the genes. Typically, enzymes in the body destroy foreign genes or DNA.
"We believe we've learned how to design a protamine-like molecule to optimize the success of incorporating genes into the cells in gene therapy," says team member Rod Balhorn. "Protamines bind too tightly to genes to be effective in protecting against enzymes that might destroy the genes. But we have learned that we can . . . possibly improve gene therapy . . . by designing a protamine that has fewer positive charges."
The Livermore team has also made a new discovery about a key step in the fertility process. Balhorn explains that for embryo development to be initiated, a protein in the egg must remove all the protamine bound to the sperm DNA within 5 to 10 minutes after the sperm fertilizes the egg.
Using a two-sided miniature flow cell designed by a team member, the Livermore scientists mimicked the embryo development initiation process and studied the interactions between DNA and the protamine. Viewing the process through a video camera, they saw the speed at which the protein bound to and released from the DNA.
Contact: Rod Balhorn (925) 422-6284 (balhorn2@llnl.gov).
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