What is bioinformatics? Bioinformatics is a discipline at the cross-roads of biology and computer science where computer algorithms and programs are used to help make sense of the massive amount of biological data that’s being generated. To really understand what bioinformatics is, it helps to know how we got here.
A few things have happened recently. About a decade ago, we sequenced the first human genome. It cost 2.7 billion dollars to do and took about 10 years to do it. Now we can sequence a genome in a couple of days and we can do it for around $1,000 USD. Pretty nice, right? But what does this have to do with bioinformatics (aka computational biology), and just what is bioinformatics?
Bioinformatics is Solving the Problem of Big Data in Biology
The ease and affordability of sequencing genomes has led to a very real problem. We’re now generating so much data that it’s impossible for us to really digest and understand what’s going on.
Picture it like this. Each human being has roughly 3 billion base pairs in their DNA. That’s 3 billion A’s T’s G’s C’s. If you were to write out the genetic code of one person, it would be the size of a thickest college textbook you’ve ever seen. That’s a lot of information.
Now let’s say you want to find similarities or differences between a pool of 1,000 people. Imagine having to flip through 1,000 books of A’s T’s G’s and C’s to find matches. It would be impossible. This is where bioinformatics comes in. If big data is like the Matrix. Bioinformatics is like Neo, seeing the patterns in the code. Bioinformatics leverages modern computing power and techniques to look for similarities in genetic sequences, amino acid sequences, and other areas of data in order to make meaningful connections that we, as humans, would never be able to make. So what is bioinformatics? The use of computing power and algorithms to help make biological data meaningful and useful.
What is Bioinformatics used For?
Now that we know what is bioinformatics, on to the more exciting question: what can it be used for? From the academic to the therapeutic, bioinformatics is proving to be an invaluable tool. Scientists have yet to sequence the full genome of many common animals and insects. Why would this be important? Keep in mind that we’ve learned a lot about ourselves from things as simple as yeast. (Studying yeast, we first learned how our cells divide).
On the cooler side of things, you can take 500 people that have a certain type of cancer, sequence their genome and allow the algorithms and technicians of bioinformatics to go to work and you can eventually learn which genes pre-dispose people to certain types of cancer.
You can even use it for less serious ailments, such as finding out which genes code for motion sickness, allergies, etc. The whole point of bioinformatics is that the things that computers are really good at: quickly processing terabytes of information and looking for correlations, are the things we need to get done next in order to better understand ourselves and our world before we can make some meaningful strides towards fixing things.
How much do Bioinformaticists Make?
A pretty good sum. Average salary is around $80,000 USD but salaries can go well over 120k.
What are Some of the Programs Bioinformatics Uses?
Here’s where things get interesting and we get into the nitty gritty. There are a myriad of programs bioinformaticists use.
- BLAST: looks for similar sequences in other organisims
- SignalP: looks to see if a protein has a signal sequence that can indicate where in the cell the protein is likely to be found
- LipoP: looks to see the probability that a protein is a lipoprotein on the cell’s exterior
- WebLogo: helps us visualize how similar the sequences of a protein are compared to another
- Galaxy: a program that helps you keep track of how you processed your data (to help with replication)
- Hundreds of others (see Omic Tool’s library or Canada’s bioinformatics link repository)
So using bioinformatics, you could find a sequence in a genome and roughly figure out where the protein is likely to be found, how similar it is to other proteins, if it’s a close relative to others, and what it’s functions might be.
How Can You Learn More About Bioinformatics?
Check out our post on learning bioinformatics online and/or get started on a DIY bioinformatics process (coming soon!). Since bioinformatics is a field that will (and already does) touch everything from the everyday search for causes and cures down to the more obscure uses for synthetic biology applications, it’ll be an important one to be familiar with. (Don’t believe me, just go on to any pharma or biotech website and see who they are hiring. You’ll almost always see bioinformaticists on the list).
So stay tuned. I’ll update this post with a link when the other post goes live.