Bioinformatics: the new buzz in biology

“What are you studying?”

The Holy Trinity of Bioinformatics: DNA by netalloy , Computer by plakboek.


(Pause for shock and puzzlement)

“What’s that?”

This is a conversation that I have about once a week. This post is absolutely no dis on those asking. I have had this conversation with zoologists, physicists and even biological mathematicians (and BTW I am mostly talking about Masters and PhD students as I think you guys definitely deserve the appropriate scientist label).

And it’s a valid question. Most bioinformaticians have to have a long think about it before they answer. Sometimes I fudge my answer by calling myself a computational biologist or a biological statistician, but let’s face it: that’s a cop out.

You may noticed that about 10 of your fellow bloggers are part of my bioinformatics buddies circle. We come from all over the place with undergrads in computer science, statistics and all fields of biology. We like to think of bioinformatics as the intersection of these fields. And between us we are doing all sorts of different things.

Many of us (myself included) study DNA. We sequence genomes, or bits of genomes and try to work out what makes humans, mice, bacteria etc. tick. Now the human genome for example has around 23,000 genes spread over 3.2 billion DNA bases. If you count the DNA that you inherit from both your mother and father you have almost as much DNA in one cell as there are humans on the entire planet! We bioinformaticians end up with so much data that we need big-ass super computers and fancy statistics to make sense of it all.

Now I’ve just used an example rather than a definition to represent my field. So I pose the question to my peers. What is your bioinformatics? How would you define it?

Now hopefully my next conversation to go more like:

“What are you studying?”


“Awesome! Tell me more.”

Images sourced from: DNA by netalloy , Computer by plakboek.

13 Responses to “Bioinformatics: the new buzz in biology”

  1. Harriet Dashnow says:

    I just want to say on behalf of the Bioinformatics industry to the Computer Hardware industry:
    “You’re welcome.”

  2. Malcolm Gorman says:

    I just hope it’s one of those fields requiring massive computational and storage capabilities and therefore pushing technology further forward. Especially those big-ass (back end?) capabilities.

  3. Harriet Dashnow says:

    Thanks for sharing your personal brand of Bioinformatics!
    You say that Bioinformatics starts after the data is gathered. I think that is actually a big problem with the way research is done. As Bioinformaticians we often get a call from a lab-based scientist saying, “I have this really big data file. Can you tell me what it means?”. When really, we would prefer to hear, “I’m thinking of doing this really big experiment, what is the best way to do it so that I get really high quality data?”

  4. Peter says:

    Apologies Harriet for taking this long to comment on this truly interesting -for us totes awesome peeps- post.

    Soooo, how do I explain what ‘my’ bioinformatics is?
    Well, I like describing it to friends and relatives as trying to find those bits in your DNA that make you ‘genetically’ sick. And by this, I mean suffering from a genetic disorder – either rare or common -, and not a bug-related disease (such as the flu)(although you could argue that some people are immunologically weaker than others, thus sensitivity to the common cold could be genetic I guess…).

    Rare disorders normally run (are passed on from grandparents, to parents, to children) in a few families, so if we can sequence the DNA of the disease-affected individuals from those families, we could localise the genomic region harboring the disease-causing gene.

    Common disorders require the DNA sequencing of a large number of patients and an almost equally large amount of controls. By comparing the differences in DNA locations between the case and control groups, we can find genes that are likely to increase the risk of developing the disease under study.

    Of course bioinformatics starts after we gather all the data, and when we need to ‘cook’ all that data so that it gives us the dish we want;-)
    I’m only JUST beginning my ‘cooking’ lessons btw..!!

  5. Anthony Agosta says:

    I believe that most people are aware of the classical courses offered by universities, though as degree programs continue to evolve to accommodate the demands of industry, there has been a number of courses offered which are actually multidisciplinary in nature, and Bioinformatics is one of those lovely courses. In the future such course will become the norm.

  6. Nadine Cresswell-Mya says:

    How refreshing a scientist who can simple things down so that even the layperson can understand.

  7. Josua Troesch says:

    Couldn’t agree more, Harriet. (I’m one of the fellow bioinformatics students)

    I caught myself silently blaming other people of not paying attention when they wouldn’t ask back: “Sorry what was that? Biomathematics?”. My standard reply is: “It’s basically applied Computer Science in Biology. Making sense of huge amounts of biological data of some sort.”. Keen to read comments on my definition, maybe it’s skewed towards my background (computer science)?

  8. Harriet Dashnow says:

    @Michael and @Neha
    Thanks, I’m sure this is a problem that all specialists face. I guess the goal is for us to get better at explaining what we do as well as promoting awareness!

    That’s an interesting question.
    You could argue that bioinformatics started as early as in the 70’s with the first biological databases. The term “Genomics” was coined in 1986, while the term “bioinformatics” first appeared in 1991. In my opinion it was the Human Genome Project that really got bioinformatics started as its own field, distinct from the rest of biology. That started in 1988 (year of my birth, how appropriate) and was declared “finished” (mostly) in 2001.
    Hm, I should stop before this becomes a blog post on the history of bioinformatics! The short answer is about 30 years, but it’s only become big in the last 10.


  9. Neha Patil says:

    I totally understand what you are talking about.

  10. Craig Steven says:

    Just how new is this specific field?

  11. Michael says:

    Interesting blog.
    As a specialist in a very different field I do understand the challenge in explaining to others what I do.

  12. Harriet Dashnow says:

    Thanks, Sila. I totally agree about interdisciplinary science. I think that as we all become more expert in our own tiny field we become even more reliant on the connections we have with other scientists to make up for the gaps in our knowledge. Look at the kinds of papers being published in places like Nature and Science. They are increasingly massive collaborations with dozens of authors.

  13. Sila says:

    I think multidisciplinary areas of study are great because researchers can apply their different skill-sets to various areas of research.

    I feel your pain though, I completed a Bachelor of Biomedical Engineering and I find myself in this situation ALL the time! Hopefully in the future there will be more intermediate people like us that can educate all scientists out there 🙂