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updated 12/12/2006 6:09:57 PM ET 2006-12-12T23:09:57

Scientists in South Africa unveiled the country's most powerful weapon yet in their fight against AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis when they switched on a new supercomputer dedicated to scientific research this week.

The supercomputer, which has been installed at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) offices in Pretoria, is designed to process huge amounts of complex information and to deliver data with astonishing speed.

It is available free of charge to local scientists testing the effectiveness of vaccines and other treatments for the many illnesses which plague Africa and make life misery for millions.

The computer is expected to be a boost for local researchers by allowing them to assess the structure of the HIV virus more quickly and accurately than in any physical laboratory, said Winston Hide, Director of the South African National Bioinformatics Institute, at the University of the Western Cape.

"It's like using the brightest possible search light in a cave as opposed to a torch," he said. "It offers another approach to the same problem... by speeding up what we're doing dramatically."

"A researcher can sit in their office with a specific problem, log in, and input in genetic data from a virus... to simulate what would happen in a Petrie dish," said Albert Gazendam, an engineer with Pretoria's Meraka Institute.

"It's all about speeding up the cycle of research."

Costing $1 million and roughly the size of four refrigerators, it links 64 processors in two high performance systems for a peak operating speed of one teraflop, which equates to a trillion floating point operations per second (FLOPS).

That level of power can generate about one billion mathematical equations per second -- saving hundreds of hours in human calculations and precious time for millions of Africans suffering from fatal disease in need of innovative solutions.

The supercomputer was donated by Intel Cooperation to the CSIR, a government arm tasked with leading scientific and technology research.

The supercomputer can reveal how disease jumps from one person to the next and then track its movement throughout the body. It has the potential to predict how the immune system of a sick person would react to drugs and analyzes the building blocks of life like genetic activity and protein structure for new medical clues.

The fastest supercomputer in the world is Blue Gene/L at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California with a performance of 280.6 teraflops.

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

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