Supercomputers in Aberdeen have clocked up their 100 million hour milestone – as they bid to aid scientific inquiry into mysteries including ancient dolphin DNA and Brazil’s national tree.

The high performance computing (HPC) cluster at the James Hutton Institute notched up the landmark in support of a range of research pursuits – from climate change to human genomics.

Experts increasingly believe that the enormous processing power of supercomputers will aid new scientific breakthroughs – solving complex mathematical problems in record time.

The UK CropDiversity High-Performance Computing (HPC) cluster, hosted by The James Hutton Institute, handled more than 400 terabytes of new data in the last 12 months alone.

Its huge number crunching capacity equates to the processing power of about 80,000 laptops – and focuses on closing significant gaps in knowledge about the natural world.

One recent project saw the HPC used to help assess extinction risks for the world’s flowering plants for scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew.

Work that would have taken many weeks previously to do, took just days.

Dr Iain Milne, who manages the UK CropDiversity HPC at the Hutton, says, “Since the first building blocks of the HPC were put in place in 2020, about 19 million analysis tasks have been run, using more than 100 million hours (or nearly 11,500 years) of computing time – how long each of the processors we have has been running – and covering more than a petabyte of data. 

“While most of the work it is doing is focused on scientific research, it is a capability that’s also available to commercial organisations who need access to this level of computing.”

At the Hutton, the HPC is also used for looking at gene expression and genomes – helping to understand how plants adapt to different environments or inputs.

Time is not on our side and we need to move fast if we are to find solutions to the very real, fast moving impact of climate change on crop resilience and so we need to be able to fast track so much of the research and these machines do it,” says machine learning engineer, Fraser Macfarlane.

“Here at the Hutton, it’s helping process ever expanding datasets generated by the likes of high-throughput phenotyping. This process uses a suite of sensors and cameras to monitor and understand how plants grow and develop. Additionally, the vast quantities of remote sensing data produced by satellites and aerial platforms like drones can be analysed, helping us understand the world around us.” 

The HPC recently handled its largest data throughput for a single project – at 25 terabytes – for the Biodiversity for Opportunities, Livelihoods and Development (BOLD) project, a Crop Trust project the Hutton is a partner on that is looking to strengthen global food and nutrition security by supporting the conservation and use of crop diversity.   

This year alone, more than 20 scientific papers have been published based on work that relied on the UK CropDiversity HPC, ranging from looking at how human genetic diversity influences antibiotic resistance to the development of seedless clementines.