Plant Energy Biology and the Cloud

Plant Energy Biology and the Cloud
July 7, 2015 Karen Mecoles

The Nectar Cloud is helping the ARC Centre of Excellence for Plant Energy Biology (PEB) discover better ways to feed and fuel the planet by understanding more about how plants use energy.

Professor Ian Small is a Chief Investigator with PEB at the University of Western Australia, and an Australian Laureate Fellow. Ian and the other scientists at PEB study how plants capture energy from sunlight, how they store that energy, and how they use that energy to grow and develop.

“So much that we take for granted depends on energy metabolism in plants,” he says.

“Most of our food is directly or indirectly derived from it. The oxygen we breathe comes from it. The building blocks that plants use to make wood and fibre come from it, as do biofuels. The fossil fuels we use are derived from the energy metabolism of plants that died millions of years ago. Even now, energy flows through plants still dwarf our own energy usage. I think it’s important that we understand these flows and how to make the best use of them.”

Much of Ian’s work is based on genomic approaches for understanding how particular genes in particular plants work. These approaches are data and computationally intensive, constantly challenging the capacity of PEB’s own systems.

Hayden Walker is the Centre’s IT and Technical Systems Support Specialist. Several months ago, after hearing about the Nectar Cloud through Pawsey, Hayden began using it for some of PEB’s research projects.

“The flexibility that’s offered by cloud services is really appealing. Traditionally we were creating these things in-house, and it’s very time-consuming and expensive to replicate on the scale we want to do them,” Hayden says.

“With Nectar we’re able to generate computational instances very quickly. And that means the researchers can start doing their analyses and visualising their data right away. Nectar also lets us scale as we need to scale. So if we start small in a certain project it’s not that hard to transfer it to a larger project with more computational resources.”

Using the Nectar Cloud has also had unexpected benefits for PEB in making it easier for them to undertake larger projects with international collaborators.

“We’ve been using the Nectar Cloud to undertake a collaborative project with a group at a Max Planck Institute in Germany,” says Ian.

“This is a group we’re very often competing with. We do similar types of research, and on some projects we collaborate and on other projects we keep our mouths shut because we’re competing for the same goals. So giving them access to our own servers is not necessarily something we should do. But having a special sandbox where we can work together is really excellent. It takes a lot of the stress out of collaboration.

“That particular project has now expanded considerably. We’ve brought in a related project with the Beijing Genome Institute in China, and another much bigger project run from the University of Alberta in Canada. So now we have a whole load of extra collaborators coming in on the same instance in the Nectar Cloud, and as Hayden says, it’s very easy just to expand it.

“It makes it much easier, much faster. The performance is excellent. It just facilitates everything. It means more collaborations than we would have done in the past — projects that would have just been too hard to go ahead with or would have been too uncomfortable once we started.”

The ease of launching a research project in the Nectar Cloud is helping position PEB to take a leading role worldwide in new discoveries in plant energy biology, that will ultimately lead to advances in agriculture, forestry, fuels, and medicine.

Hayden Walker sees enormous potential for future work. “It’s exciting to be involved and to see where this is going to go with the Nectar Cloud. Because it’s not something that’s going to be just a phase.”