Monday, August 01, 2005

What is bioinformatics?

I have encountered this question numerous times since I started working in this field. I got into this field because of my tremendous interest in biology. In this article I will give a brief and simple introduction to the field.

The word Bioinformatics is a fusion of Biology and Informatics. As the name implies, the field involves application of computer software/algorithms/tools to biology. The genome sequence of human along with many other organisms is now available. This astronomical data demands a provision for storage and data-mining; and that is where bioinformatics fits in.

Bioinformatics is useful in many biological activities, mainly Genomics, Proteomics and Systems Biology.

Genomics - Genome is the sequence of DNA, which is the hereditary material and is passed from parents to offspring. The sequencing and analysis of the genome is called genomics. Bioinformatics plays a major role in various aspects of the field as are listed below -
 It facilitates the automation of genes/gene structures prediction for the newly sequenced organism.
 Using this information about the genes coupled with phylogenetic analysis one can trace the evolutionary history of genes and even organisms.
 It also facilitates the identification of various intra-species and inter-species mutations in genes that lead to various diseases like cancer.

Another important aspect of genomics is comparative genomics. The genome sequence of human alone can give limited information. Bioinformatics makes it possible to compare one genome with other genomes for studying the implications of various similarities and differences among them.

Proteomics – Proteomics is a study of the whole protein set of an organism. Having identified the genes in a genome, bioinformatics can also predict the proteins coded by those genes. The protein sequence can be used to further predict the protein structure and the enzyme binding sites. This kind of analysis is especially beneficial for drug design.

Systems Biology – Systems biology involves using genomics, proteomics and bioinformatics to model a real life biological activity. For example, it could be used to model a signaling pathway in a cell. The model would comprise of genes involved in the pathway, their interaction and their affect on the pathway. Studies like these can greatly increase our understanding of various complicated biological pathways.

To summarize, the word bioinformatics has become very popular in the scientific world. Bioinformatics is the technology used to solve various biological problems. Bioinformaticians often develop computational tools and algorithms to answer some biological questions, which will otherwise be too time-consuming to answer. The field is developing at a very fast pace with the advances in technology as well as the rapidly increasing rate of data generated by biological laboratories. It is widely accepted that bioinformatics is on its way to become an indispensable tool for various biological studies.


At 11:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice introduction to Bio-informatics. What kind of qualifications do bio-informaticians possess? How much of it is biology and how much informatics? Are there commercial companies developing bio-informatics algorithms etc?

You say that bio-informatics will be an indispensable tool for biologists. Does it mean that bio-informaticians will also remain indispensable? Or do you envisage that once the bio-informaticians have set up the basic routines and procedures and made their programs easy to use by biologists, they (bioinformaticians) will lose their jobs?

I read somewhere that in the eary part of last century, there used to be electricity officers in large companies -- their job was to ensure that all the electrical systems of the company worked well. Today, even the idea seems absurd. Do you have any thoughts on whether bio-informaticians might face a similar fate, say, a few years from now.


At 1:04 AM, Blogger nemo said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for your comments. I shall try to answer each of your queries.

Bio-informaticians possess good computing knowledge and a desire to learn some biology. Almost 70% of the work involves informatics. I don't think there are many commercial companies selling solely bioinformatics products but a lot of companies that make biological products use bioinformatics. Even some of the biological tools that are manufactured have an informatics component. What you should understand is that bioinformatics can never be a stand alone field, it has to be coupled with biology or it wouldn't be bioinformatics.

About bio-informatics being dispensable, all informatics profession face similar concerns. Judging from the amount of biological data that is being generated and the scope of what can be achieved, I would say that for a long time to come bioinformatics will remain indispensable.

At 6:42 AM, Blogger Obi Igbokwe said...

Good intro to bioinformatics and you are absolutely right. While they are a few companies who just specialise in bioinformatics, they are a lot more who though need bioinformaticians but tend to have a lot more professionals from other fields working for them, a good example is the pharmaceutical industry. At Biohealthmatics, we have noticed that quite a lot of pharmacuetical tend to have one or two bioinformatics positions going at any one time.


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