CT Business
Magazine


September/October 2001

Reprinted with permission

Bioinformatics

What is Bioinformatics

 

“What bioinformatics really is, is the use of computer technology to get at the information that’s stored in certain types of biological data."

By Steve Starger

With recent news stories pounding us with tales of genetically altered foods, human cloning, and other subjects that were once the province of science fiction writers and social critics, it’s hard to get a handle on what’s really happening in the brave new world of genetics.

Well, you might be surprised to learn that none of this is really new, at least to biologists and computer scientists.

The science of bioinformatics — the computer systems that extract the information that researchers use to find disease cures and open other new worlds — has been around since the 1960s, according to Dr. Susan Smith, a professor and research biologist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, NY, and its sister institution, Rensselaer at Hartford, a graduate studies center in Connecticut’s capital city.

“In biology studies, bioinformatics is an essential tool now,” Smith said. “All of our first-year biology graduate students take bioinformatics.” Rensselaer also offers an undergraduate major in bioinformatics and molecular biology.

So, what is bioinformatics?

As Smith explains, “What bioinformatics really is, is the use of computer technology to get at the information that’s stored in certain types of biological data. For that to make sense, the kind of data that most people use, when they talk about bioinformatics, is sequenced data.”

That, Smith continues, means, essentially, DNA molecules.
“DNA is made up of smaller pieces of molecules, and the sequence of those smaller molecules along a string of DNA confers all of the information the organism needs to function and for the next organism to grow and develop,” Smith said. “If you store sequences, then you’re basically storing the information that the organism has available to it — to grow and develop.”

That is the essence of bioinformatics, Smith said, and to retrieve that kind of information requires creating huge databases designed especially for storing that specific information, and writing computer programs that can “search for things you’re interested in.”
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