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Biology 103
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Bioinformatics: The Gold Rush of Today

Nimia Barrera

"Plastics." When a family friend whispered this word to Dustin Hoffman's character in the 1967 film The Graduate, he was advocating not just a novel career choice but an entirely different way of life. If that movie were made today, in the age of the deciphering of the human genome, the magic word might well be "bioinformatics" (1).

Bioinformatics is the application of computer technology to the management of biological information. Computers are used to gather, store, analyze and integrate biological and genetic information, which can then be applied to gene-based drug discovery and development (2). The need for Bioinformatics capabilities has been precipitated by the explosion of publicly available genomic information resulting from the Human Genome Project (HGP). The goal of this project - determination of the sequence of the entire human genome (approximately three billion base pairs) - will be reached by the year 2002. The science of Bioinformatics, which is the melding of molecular biology with computer science, is essential to the use of genomic information in understanding human diseases and in the identification of new molecular targets for drug discovery. In recognition of this, many universities, government institutions, and pharmaceutical firms have formed bioinformatics groups, consisting of computational biologists and bioinformatics computer scientists(2). Such groups will be key to unraveling the mass of information generated by large scale sequencing efforts underway in laboratories around the world.

Companies from all around are vying for their share in this "bioinformatics gold rush." Jason Reed of the investment banking firm Oscar Gruss & Son in New York estimates that bioinformatics could be a $2-billion business within five years (1). The reason companies are so willing to invest in research and resource services of bioinformatics is that bioinformatics offers the opportunity of finding better drug targets earlier in the drug development process. "Assume I'm a pharmaceutical company and somebody can get [my] drug to the market one year sooner," explains Stelios Papadopoulous, managing director of health care at New York investment banking firm SG Cowen. "It could mean you could grab maybe $500 million in sales you would not have recovered" (1).

One of the most basic operations in bioinformatics involves searching for similarities, or homologies, between a newly sequenced piece of DNA and previously sequenced DNA segments from various organisms. Finding near-matches allows researchers to predict the type of protein the new sequence encodes. This not only yields leads for drug targets early in drug development but also weeds out many targets that would have turned out to be dead ends.

A popular set of software programs for comparing DNA sequences is BLAST (Basic Local Alignment Search Tool). The BLAST programs have been designed for speed, with a minimal sacrifice of sensitivity to distant sequence relationships. The scores assigned in a BLAST search have a well-defined statistical interpretation, making real matches easier to distinguish from random background hits (3).

The revolution of Bioinformatics involves many different players with different strategies. The various companies cater to different needs. Some cater to large users, aiming their services and products at genomics, biotechnology, and pharmaceutical companies by creating custom software and offering consulting services.

It all adds up to good days ahead for bioinformatics, which many assert holds the real promise of genomics. "Genomics without bioinformatics will not have much of a payoff," states Roland Somogyi, former director of neurobiology at Incyte Genomics (2). Michael N. Liebman, head of computational biology at Roche Bioscience in Palo Alto, agrees. "Genomics is not the paradigm shift; it's understanding how to use it that is the paradigm shift," he asserts. "In bioinformatics, we're at the beginning of the revolution" (2).

WWW Sources

1)The Bioinformatics Gold Rush, Scientific American Article

2)What is Bioinformatics?, Ask Jeeves Result

3)BLAST Overview, NCBI Website




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