Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary science field which combines concepts from biology and computer science to tackle large, computational questions. The role of computers has risen increasingly in recent years, and nearly every science takes advantage of technology to process and analyze information. At the most basic level, bioinformatics can be considered the simple use of computer spreadsheets and biological observations to quantify and analyze the information present. While these sorts of tasks used to be exclusive to scientists with computer access, anyone with an understanding of biology and a spreadsheet processor could engage in bioinformatics. However, the field has progressed rapidly since its inception. Now, advanced programs and software are created to tackle a diverse range of problems and answer questions which were previously untestable. Bioinformatics and computational biology are now considered interchangeable terms.
The increase in the use of bioinformatics in all branches of science have greatly increased the demand for bioinformatics majors. Some schools have created interdisciplinary programs between their biology and computer science departments which help bridge the gap between the two sciences. Other programs take a specific portion of bioinformatics in the context of the science being taught. In many epidemiology programs, for instance, bioinformatics make up a segment of the coursework.
There are several fields of study which incorporate bioinformatics heavily. Proteomics, for example, is the science of classifying and understanding proteins and their origins. Computers are needed to model the genetic code, sequencing of amino acids, and 3-D structure of proteins. Using these models, we can even predict how certain proteins will interact with other molecules. Eventually, we may be able to model an entire organism, and study how all of the reactions take place throughout the organism. The same is true of genetics and other sciences which rely on DNA processing. Before computers, processing even a small portion of DNA was unrealistic, and would take a human years, simply based on the large number of elements involved. The analysis of DNA, proteins, and other tissues by computers spills into other majors as well. Even degrees in criminal justice will require some knowledge of bioinformatics. Fingerprinting and DNA evidence make up a majority of the evidence in many criminal cases, and bioinformatics is central to obtaining and validating this evidence.
Many bioinformatics degrees are graduate level degrees, as much knowledge of both computers and biology is required to understand complex computer software and intricate biology systems. However, a few schools are developing interdisciplinary bachelor’s degrees in bioinformatics. The field of bioinformatics is rapidly expanding, from measuring neurons in the brain to using computers to track crops. As such, the number of careers involving the science is also rapidly expanding.
As with many fields in science, bioinformatics can be purely academic or can be combined with other sciences and applied to industry. Professors specializing in bioinformatics are relatively new, as widespread computer access was only available within the last 20 years to average researchers. However, most schools with prestigious biology programs are adding bioinformatics courses. Professors and researches study a wide variety of applications for bioinformatics at universities. Studies range from computer simulations of organic reactions, to computer modeling of proteins and toxins, to simulations of populations and evolution. The application of technology to biology is so diverse that most of them cannot be covered here.
In industry, bioinformatics is revolutionizing many industries. Consider the agricultural industry for example. It has taken botanists and farmers centuries to develop the crops we have today. They have previously done this by meticulously analyzing the crop, selecting varieties that faired the best, and reproducing only the best. Now, with bioinformatics technology, computers can be trained to analyze the genome of particular plants, track millions of plants at a time, and predict which plants will be the best. Revolutions in artificial intelligence will aid and speed this process. The same sorts of benefits are being seen by many industries.
The pharmaceutical industry relies heavily on bioinformatics. Not only do they need people to analyze and develop current drugs, but they need next level thinkers who can develop methods and software to predict the reactions certain drugs would cost. As computing power increases, the number and kinds of reactions which can be modeled increases dramatically. This could mean the end of animal testing and a new age of informed drug making. Other medical professions, including everything from doctors to biomedical device creators, are also embracing technology. Patient care in hospitals in now tracked through methods developed in bioinformatics, and can greatly improve the monitoring provided by doctors and hospitals. Many advanced imaging procedures and electrical activity tests of the heart and brain require analysis through computers because of their complex nature.
One of the first professions to employ bioinformatics, epidemiology, still uses technology as much as possible today. The recognition and identification of many patterns of common diseases would still be a mystery if not for computer modeling. Using computers and data gathered in the field, epidemiologists work to understand disease outbreaks and how we can reduce our exposure to communicable diseases. Various software is designed to do everything from track the geographic location of outbreaks, to assessing possible risk factors for disease, all the way to tracking the organisms which cause disease and monitoring how they evolve. This is done by the makers of the flu vaccine, who every year adjust their formula based on the expected mutations to the influenza virus. Bioinformatics provides the basis for these estimations.
Along the same lines, many population biologists track changes in a population over time using computers and specialized software. While this used to mean a scientist entered their observations into a spreadsheet and made a graph, it is now much more advanced. Scientists can measure and observe individual changes to a genome over time in a population using the advanced processing power of computers. While macroevolution may take millions of years, microevolution happens every generation and scientists have now documented that with help from bioinformatics. On a larger scale, climate scientists use bioinformatics to make large calculations about the impact certain organism have on the environment. Thanks to bioinformatics analysis, we now know that a large majority of the oxygen we rely on comes from algae in the ocean. This science will keep increasing as technology advances and we are able to create more advanced models and process and collect more data.
- Rothman, K. J., Greenland, S., & Lash, L. T. (2008). Modern Epidemiology. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.