FPGA acceleration of the phylogenetic likelihood function for Bayesian MCMC inference methods

Stephanie Zierke, Jason Bakos
Department of Computer Science and Engineering, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC, USA
BMC Bioinformatics, Vol. 11, No. 1. (2010), 184.


   title={FPGA acceleration of the phylogenetic likelihood function for Bayesian MCMC inference methods},

   author={Zierke, S. and Bakos, J.D.},

   journal={BMC bioinformatics},






   publisher={BioMed Central Ltd}


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BACKGROUND: Likelihood (ML)-based phylogenetic inference has become a popular method for estimating the evolutionary relationships among species based on genomic sequence data. This method is used in applications such as RAxML, GARLI, MrBayes, PAML, and PAUP. The Phylogenetic Likelihood Function (PLF) is an important kernel computation for this method. The PLF consists of a loop with no conditional behavior or dependencies between iterations. As such it contains a high potential for exploiting parallelism using micro-architectural techniques. In this paper, we describe a technique for mapping the PLF and supporting logic onto a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA)-based co-processor. By leveraging the FPGA’s on-chip DSP modules and the high-bandwidth local memory attached to the FPGA, the resultant co-processor can accelerate ML-based methods and outperform state-of-the-art multi-core processors. RESULTS: We use the MrBayes 3 tool as a framework for designing our co-processor. For large datasets, we estimate that our accelerated MrBayes, if run on a current-generation FPGA, achieves a 10x speedup relative to software running on a state-of-the-art server-class microprocessor. The FPGA-based implementation achieves its performance by deeply pipelining the likelihood computations, performing multiple floating-point operations in parallel, and through a natural log approximation that is chosen specifically to leverage a deeply pipelined custom architecture. CONCLUSIONS: Heterogeneous computing, which combines general-purpose processors with special-purpose co-processors such as FPGAs and GPUs, is a promising approach for high-performance phylogeny inference as shown by the growing body of literature in this field. FPGAs in particular are well-suited for this task because of their low power consumption as compared to many-core processors and Graphics Processor Units (GPUs) [1].
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