Wiggle wiggle

How Java helped OpenWorm wriggle to life

Elliot Bentley

Inside the open source Java project dedicated to creating a virtual organism inside a computer.

In this article, originally published in the January edition
of JAX Magazine,
Elliot Bentley looks at the bio-cyber breakthrough that’s getting
the Javasphere excited. 

Streaming 200MB per second to browsers is just
one of many engineering challenges faced when simulating a living
A video of a wriggling
microscopic worm
seems an unlikely news story, but over
Christmas 2013, it was featured on dozens of sites including Mail
Online, Engadget and BoingBoing. 


This was no ordinary worm, however: it was a
computer simulation, the culmination of over two years’ work by an
international team of scientists and engineers. Together they have
been building
OpenWorm, “the
world’s first virtual organism in a computer”, and this two minute
long video was recorded to show off its muscle systems in

Under the surface of this worm is an incredibly
complex and entirely open source Java application built with OSGi
and Spring. OpenWorm co-founder Matteo Cantarelli told JAXenter
that Java was an obvious choice for a project of this

Basically, we wanted an enterprise
solution, because what we’re building will have to scale up a lot,”
he said in a phone interview. “When you compare the speed of Python
and Java when looking at how big the objects in memory are, those
kinds of things – for something robust and long-term, Java was what
we ended up going with.”

Cantarelli originally trained in electrical and
systems engineering, before working for around six years as a
software engineer. In his spare time, however, he was exploring a
very different side of software: simulating life itself.

I started a process of
self-educating, just reading loads of [biology] books,” says
Cantarelli. Eventually, he met a group of like-minded people over
the internet – or as Cantarelli puts it, “A couple of individuals
who had the same dream: to simulate a

Cut it, and it’ll bleed Java

Caenorhabditis elegans, or
C. elegans to friends, is a
microscopic nematode worm that, thanks to its prevalence and
simplicity, has become one of the most-studied organisms in the
world. Not only was it was the first multicellular organism to have
its entire genome sequenced, but the life patterns of every single
one of its 1,031 cells have been studied in depth.

Despite this, modelling a C.
on a computer was still a wildly ambitious
task when the four founders began work on OpenWorm. The complexity
of even the simplest of organisms rivals some of the toughest
problems in computer science; and to make things even more complex,
the group had settled on a flexible client-server architecture that
needed to be scalable.

Everything in OpenWorm is written twice –
firstly by the scientist half of the team, who create models based
on real-life observations in Python and C++, and then a second time
by the engineering half as a highly modular Java

We wanted to build something with
a client-server architecture, and we wanted something robust,” says
Cantarelli, “and Java has a very good track record as offering
server-based applications. We wanted something that was, for
instance, strongly typed.”

It’s not plain Java, because that
wouldn’t cut it. We used a lot of OSGi, in the sense that we want
the whole architecture to be modular and independent, so we want
good dependencies decoupling. And using Spring offers benefits
along the same line.” Eclipse Virgo was chosen because it was “one
of the first web servers to allow OSGi within a web server

Cantarelli stresses the importance of this
modularisation. Not only are systems within the worm kept separate,
but the organism’s data is decoupled too – providing a solid
foundation with which different organisms could also be

The idea is that the architecture
and the platform will be reusable entirely,” says Cantarelli. “The
worm will be just data.”

Burrowing OpenWorm through the

The current build of OpenWorm runs on Amazon
EC2, but Cantarelli says there is ongoing research into a “more
diverse composition for the different nodes of the network”. Some
aspects of the simulation might require high-performance computing,
for example, while others might use a parallelised architecture. At
this stage, though, no permanent decisions have been

OpenWorm is split like an MVC application, where
the worm model is calculated on the server, rendered in a client,
and user instructions sent back to the server for processing. In
web browsers, the team are using JavaScript and WebGL to render the
model (you can have a
play with it
, and there’s also
iOS client
). Cantarelli says there’s already
an API for manipulating the server-based simulation, but it doesn’t
yet have a GUI equivalent.

This client-server model may be
forward-thinking, but Cantarelli describes it as an “ambitious
choice”. The idea, he says, is to make the worm simulation so
accessible that it can be used “the same way as Google

But Google Docs deals mostly with text, whereas
an organism, even one as simple as a nematode, is infinitely more
complex. For an accurate visualisation, huge amounts of data will
need to be streamed to the client, and this presents one of the
largest engineering challenges of the project.

What does this data consist of? “If you think of
the particle simulation, for instance,” explains Cantarelli, “that
particle simulation there has roughly 150,000 particles. That is
the current model, so it’s not even the final model, and it is only
one aspect [of the entire model].

And by one aspect, I mean it is
just concerned with the particle physics of the locomotion of the
worm, so how the muscle stretches, how the body stretches, how the
body wriggles, friction with the liquid or gel that the worm is
swimming into.”

Compared to the type of data typically streamed
over the web, the output of this calculation is enormous. “Each
timestep is in the order of magnitude of five megabytes,” says
Cantarelli. “Now, imagine that you want to stream at 35 frames per
second… you’re looking at a huge bandwidth

As a result, this highly detailed model outputs
a whopping 200MB per second – around a hundred times the bandwidth
needed for 4K video. Work hasn’t yet started on optimising this
stream, but Cantarelli says that it will require some creative
thinking on the part of the engineers.

It’s one of many technical challenges yet to be
dealt with, but Cantarelli and his engineers are on track to
dealing with them. In just two years OpenWorm has already grown
from a four-person side project to a sprawling

I wake up every day and there’s
new stuff happening, and there’s new people doing things, new
people contributing, and it just makes me very happy,” says
Cantarelli. “The project now has a life of its own!”

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