Family ties

The supercomputer used to make Weta’s blockbusters is also helping Kiwi scientists trace human history
Family Ties story

Idealog July/August 2006, page 22. Illustration by Daron Parton

The supercomputer used to make Weta’s blockbusters is also helping Kiwi scientists trace human history

DNA researchers deal with very big numbers so it helps to have some serious computing power at your disposal. Three University of Auckland researchers are number-crunching with the supercomputer used to render the special effects in Weta blockbusters like King Kong—and what they’re learning is set to change the story of human history.

Russell Gray and PhD students Quentin Atkinson and Simon Greenhill are using DNA samples to uncover the story of human—and simian—evolution, migration and history. By tracking the way DNA changes they can tell, for example, when humans first moved out of Africa. They’re applying the same techniques to languages to learn about Pacific migration.

The project is called ‘The King and Us’. Already the research suggests that the consensus about human history is wrong. “We don’t believe the dates that people have been using for human evolution,” says Gray. “There are lots of problems with those dates.

“By about June or July we should have some really good answers.”

It’s ironic that New Zealand, about the last place on Earth to be found by humans, is leading the way in cutting-edge research into human history. Evolution was once studied by examining physical evidence—bones, cave paintings and dwellings—but these days, Gray says, “what you need is the experts and the methods and the thinking”.

It’s not just human evolution, though: another University of Auckland researcher, Shane Wright, recently published research on molecular evolution in plants and found that plants and animals in tropical climates evolve faster than in temperate zones.

“New Zealand is a world leader in developing the methods and software to construct evolutionary trees and ask new evolutionary questions,” says Gray.

These questions can be answered a lot more efficiently with some ‘big iron’. “The kind of things we do run for months on fast computers,” Gray says. “If you didn’t have those you’d be waiting for the rest of your life. The supercomputer makes possible asking questions we just wouldn’t have been able to ask before.”

Local companies are using the supercomputer too. “The hottest project for us at the moment is oil and gas exploration,” says Scott Houston of the New Zealand Supercomputer Centre (motto: ‘Supersize your data’). Houston was chief technology officer at Weta Digital when it originally built the supercomputer to render special effects for the Lord of the Rings films. The moviemaker then set up NZCS with Telecom to sell computer time between movies. It’s not the only supercomputer in the country, but it is the only one to appear on the latest global Top500 list of supercomputers (NZSC actually has four supercomputers, ranked at 109, 323, 335 and 338).

Houston says he can’t talk about some clients’ work. He will say, though, that business is good. As well as the oil and gas exploration project with the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, NZCS is working with Industrial Research Ltd on nanotechnology and AUT University on New Zealand’s involvement in the Square Kilometre Array radio telescopes (see Idealog #2).

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