Accelerating epistasis analysis in human genetics with consumer graphics hardware

Nicholas S. Armstrong, Casey Greene, Fabio Cancare, Jason Moore
Computational Genetics Lab, Department of Genetics, Norris-Cotton Cancer Center, Dartmouth Medical School, Lebanon, NH, USA
BMC Research Notes, Vol. 2, No. 1. (2009), 149.


   title={Accelerating epistasis analysis in human genetics with consumer graphics hardware},

   author={Sinnott-Armstrong, N.A. and Greene, C.S. and Cancare, F. and Moore, J.H.},

   journal={BMC research notes},






   publisher={BioMed Central Ltd}


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BACKGROUND:Human geneticists are now capable of measuring more than one million DNA sequence variations from across the human genome. The new challenge is to develop computationally feasible methods capable of analyzing these data for associations with common human disease, particularly in the context of epistasis. Epistasis describes the situation where multiple genes interact in a complex non-linear manner to determine an individual’s disease risk and is thought to be ubiquitous for common diseases. Multifactor Dimensionality Reduction (MDR) is an algorithm capable of detecting epistasis. An exhaustive analysis with MDR is often computationally expensive, particularly for high order interactions. This challenge has previously been met with parallel computation and expensive hardware. The option we examine here exploits commodity hardware designed for computer graphics. In modern computers Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) have more memory bandwidth and computational capability than Central Processing Units (CPUs) and are well suited to this problem. Advances in the video game industry have led to an economy of scale creating a situation where these powerful components are readily available at very low cost. Here we implement and evaluate the performance of the MDR algorithm on GPUs. Of primary interest are the time required for an epistasis analysis and the price to performance ratio of available solutions.FINDINGS:We found that using MDR on GPUs consistently increased performance per machine over both a feature rich Java software package and a C++ cluster implementation. The performance of a GPU workstation running a GPU implementation reduces computation time by a factor of 160 compared to an 8-core workstation running the Java implementation on CPUs. This GPU workstation performs similarly to 150 cores running an optimized C++ implementation on a Beowulf cluster. Furthermore this GPU system provides extremely cost effective performance while leaving the CPU available for other tasks. The GPU workstation containing three GPUs costs $2000 while obtaining similar performance on a Beowulf cluster requires 150 CPU cores which, including the added infrastructure and support cost of the cluster system, cost approximately $82,500.CONCLUSION:Graphics hardware based computing provides a cost effective means to perform genetic analysis of epistasis using MDR on large datasets without the infrastructure of a computing cluster.
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