Bioinformatics is the technology that mapped the human genome, Smith notes. “It’s all about the human genome project, and that’s the part that people know about most readily.”

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Bioinformatics is the technology that mapped the human genome, Smith notes. “It’s all about the human genome project, and that’s the part that people know about most readily.”

But there are other parts to bioinformatics.

There is what Smith calls “proteomic information,” simply, information about proteins, which do your body’s work. The genome, by contrast, is the repository of DNA information.

Through bioinformatics technology, a string of molecules can be extracted from a database and displayed on a computer screen as a series of letters. Those series can be compared and contrasted among human and animal samples as a method of finding out how similar or different humans are to other animals and how that might help develop new drugs to find life-threatening diseases, Smith explains.

“Eventually, with all this information, we’ll be able to figure out how to use it to make new kinds of organisms, just from sequences,” she said.

In terms of the types of hot-button issues in genetic research that have triggered visceral responses in the general public, Smith acknowledges that there are “real issues that people have to be aware of. The more people can read newspapers and the popular press and get true information, the better off they are to make decisions. I’m not against engineering organisms, but it depends on what you’re engineering them for.”

As an example, Smith points to the bovine growth hormone, which is found in cows.

Smith explains that the bovine growth hormone can be made in a bacterium by taking the gene from the cow and sticking it into the bacterium’s genome and “doing a few simple biochemical tricks to encourage the bacterium to make that protein.”

The resulting hormone is identical to the natural hormone in cows, Smith said.

“Farmers have been giving their cows bovine growth hormones for a long time,” according to Smith. “It’s cheaper to make it in a bacterium. The point is, if you want bovine growth hormone for some reason, making it in a bacterium is just fine. There’s no harm in doing that.”

The harm, Smith says, “comes from, why are you giving bovine growth hormone to cows? Basically, you are letting them have a bunch more bovine growth hormone than they normally have. It gets into the milk, it gets into us.

“Bovine growth hormone and human growth hormone are close enough related that it affects us, but we don’t know how yet, so I am against adding bovine growth hormone, but I’m not against growing it in a bacterium if you were going to use it for something other than adding it to the food supply.”

Smith takes a similar view of the issue of genetically-altered corn, a recent newsmaker.

As Smith explains, one type of process produces a toxin, another produces lysine, an amino acid found naturally in many foods but which is deficient in corn.

“We have lysine in us,” Smith says. “Making the corn have more lysine by genetically altering it, how can that possibly be harmful? Putting a toxin into corn, to me, is just crazy. You have to understand what the technology is really doing to understand what the issue is. It’s silly to say you can’t use genetically engineered crops. We do it all the time.

“The point is, we don’t want to be genetically engineering things that are going to be harmful in ways that we can’t foresee,” Smith said.

“It’s our job as educators to try to explain these things to people in a way they can understand. It’s everybody’s job to be informed so they can use their voice in the voting booth.”

Bioinformatics also is directly related to seeking new treatments for diseases, “starting from the sequences and going all the way through molecular modeling,” Smith notes. “The easiest way to think about it is, if you have a protein sequence, and you know that sequence is important in some disease, but you don’t know exactly what the protein looks like, you can use bioinformatics techniques to get at what it might look like and what it might do. Once you have that information, you can go in and design drugs that will fit into the protein and change how it works.”.

One of the drugs used to treat AIDS was designed using bioinformatics techniques, Smith points out.

Bioinformatics makes research on questions about the actions of specific genes possible, Smith said. “These are things we’re going to have to think about. There’s lots of data that needs to be analyzed, and computers are going to be the way to do it. We may find a lot of information that we didn’t understand about how ecosystems work. It’s not all about humans.”

And, Smith says, “maybe we don’t want to do anything with the information. What I hope is that we’ll be able to use it for rational, good things, and prohibit bad uses of this technology.”

SAMPLES OF MOLECULES
USED IN RESEARCH

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Reprinted with permission from CT Business Magazine