19 Aug Bioinformatics – A New Science
It took thirteen years for the federally funded Human Genome Project to fully identify all 30,000 genes in human DNA. Now comes the challenge of analyzing and making sense of all the data that was generated from the lengthy study. The analytical challenges presented by this important scientific discovery spurred several very talented people wondering how to meet this head on and to make sense out of what was perceived as mostly chaos.
From these discussions, the science of bioinformatics was born. The term “bioinformatics” signifies the combination of computer science and biological research, bringing mathematicians and computer scientists together for the first time to analyze the vast amounts of data created by the biologists.
Bioinformatics is the interface between computational science and life science. It is the study of the information content and flow in biological systems and processes. It combines the storage and retrieval of complex biological data with analysis and annotation of biological information. It is a knowledge-based modeling of specific cellular and molecular processes.
Two very important players in this emerging new science are a husband and wife team, Peter and Vicky Markstein. Both Marksteins worked at IBM for many years and were part of the pioneering efforts of the 1980s-project dubbed Reduced Instruction Set Computing or RISC, which later became the chip architecture behind computers at IBM, Sun Microsystems, Apple Computer, and Hewlett-Packard.
The Marksteins fell into their new field of study quite by accident, while helping their daughter, Michele. She was a graduate student at the University of Chicago studying the genes of the fruit fly, and needed a way to quickly look for patterns in the DNA, particularly the parts of DNA that turn functions on and off. She asked her parents for help, and they created a very complex computer program that could search for patterns in DNA and quickly return results. Then Michele would verify the results in lab tests where she would mutate genes to discover their true functions.
Bioinformatics is attracting hundreds of researchers from computer science and biology because it takes very complicated computer models to search for patterns in human and animal genetic codes. It has become so important that Stanford University, along with sponsor Hewlett Packard, is hosting the second annual bioinformatics conference, where topics covering decoding proteins will be discussed. Aligent Technologies, an HP spin off, has also expressed interest in bioinformatics.
The good news is academic interest is growing and the federal government is funding research through the Department of Energy’s Genomes to Life program. Some universities also are offering a Master of Science degree in Bioinformatics. To further demonstrate the growing interest in this new field, this year’s conference at Stanford will have 108 researchers who have proposed to present ideas for papers, compared with 39 last year. The web site www.bioinformatics.org is also helping spread the word internationally via its nonprofit organization, Bioinformatics.Org..
A couple of startup companies in the San Francisco Bay Area have tried and failed. Venture capitalists believe they were just too early in the game to commercialize the tools they developed. So the real commercial value of bioinformatics is yet to be realized, but Hewlett-Packards Labs believes it can help them better understand their work in life sciences. Again, it often takes a sponsor with very deep pockets like HP to make the investment in new technologies for it to pay off in the long term.
William Dollar is a Senior Contributing Editor for the Wisconsin Technology Network, and has his own consulting company at www.billdollar.com. You can also contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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