What is bioinformatics?

Workshop report: Impact of emerging technologies on the biological sciences, National Science Foundation, 1995

Essentially, bioinformatics involves the management of enormous databases of biological (especially microbiological) information. In addition, 3-D visualization is becoming increasingly important.

Narayan Kulkarni of BioSpectrum names 3 subdisciplines:

- the development of new algorithms and statistics with which to assess relationships among members of large data sets,

- the analysis and interpretation of various types of data including nucleotide and amino acid sequences, protein domains and protein structures, and

- the development and implementation of tools that enable efficient access and management of different types of information.

Recently, the field has expanded from the traditional areas of genomics (the study of total molecular sequencing of one set of all genes of an organism) and proteomics (the study of amino acid sequences and the three-dimensional structure related to the function of proteins). Newer developments are cheminformatics, glycomics (study of carbohydrates), metabolics and drug design through bioinformatics.

The NSF's 1995 report (dated, but still useful) states:

Bioinformatics is the facilitation of biological research by improving our ability to accumulate, manipulate and visualize data.

Bioinformatics involves all aspects of advanced computer science and engineering. It includes the high-speed acquisition of biological data, followed by the high throughput processing, analysis, archiving, data search and retrieval, networking, and display of complex biological data sets. This may be the single most pervasive emerging technology in terms of applications for biological research.

Large databases that can be accessed and analyzed with sophisticated tools will become central to biological research and education. The information content in the genomics of organisms, in the molecular dynamics of proteins, and in population dynamics, to name but a few areas, is enormous. Biologists are increasingly finding that the management of complex data sets is becoming a bottleneck for scientific advances. Therefore, bioinformatics will rapidly become a key technology in all fields of biology.

The present bottlenecks in bioinformatics include the education of biologists in the use of advanced computing tools, the recruitment of computer scientists into this evolving field, the limited availability of developed databases of biological information, and the need for more efficient and intelligent search engines for complex databases. Common data structures and user interfaces will be necessary to leverage investments in software development.

Aside from bioinformatics, narrowly defined, there are related fields where biology and IT meet:

- knowledge management tools and knowledge systems to aid drug discovery
- management support, e.g. software to track clinical trials or regular CRM, ERP tools for the biotech industry.

Important fields where biology and other emerging technologies meet are:

- computational biology applied to complex systems to yield progress in structural biology (e.g., molecular dynamics; chemical events in cells, tissues, organs, and organisms; and population and ecosystem dynamics);

- functional imaging tools using biosensors and biomarkers for defining the function of cells, tissues, organs, and organisms;

- transformation and transient expression technologies to allow animals, plants, and cell culture systems to be used as expression systems for production of compounds for research and commerce; and

- nanotechnologies to build small machines for microanalysis and micromanipulation.

Some of these may, of course, require IT support.

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