Bioinformatics

Bioinformatics is an extremely diverse discipline. Clearly, it involves biology and informatics, but the term ‘informatics’ spans mathematics, statistics, computer science, and many other quantitative sciences seen as disciplines in their own right.

Rather than add to the wealth of written definitions (including this from the US National Institutes of Health), or engage in semantic defence or debate, we put this question to bioinformaticians, biologists and other quantitiative bioscientists to give you a take on what bioinformatics means to real, live people.

Our hunger for bioscience data

Humans have long sought to understand how our bodies work. The emergence of experimentalism in the mid-17th century brought a philosophical approach, later termed reductionism, which focused on the component parts of our bodies – organs, muscles, bones and the like.

Analogies were developed between the human body and the most complex artefacts of human ingenuity: timepieces (Joseph Glanvill), mechanical toys (René Descartes), pneumatic machines (Julien Offray de la Mettrie) and – with the rise of the Industrial Revolution – mills, factories and assembly lines.

Thus should we encounter, for the very first time, a pocket watch, we would likely take it apart and investigate its parts – not as instinct, but following accepted experimental philosophy. If pressed, we would defend our approach as “scientific method”.

In many respects, reductionism has been spectacularly successful: the DNA double helix, the genetic code, and the central dogma of molecular biology (“DNA makes RNA makes protein”) are headline examples.

By the mid-20th century a more-integrative biology, based on models of information storage and flow (Conrad WaddingtonErwin SchrödingerStuart Kauffman), seemed within reach, even without a full human-body parts list (every gene, every protein).

Computers were becoming more powerful and accessible beyond departments of electrical engineering. Against this background Paulien Hogeweg coined the terms “bioinformatica” (1970 in Dutch) and “bioinformatics” (1978 in English) to describe a proposed research field in which “information processing could serve as a useful metaphor for understanding living systems”.

But reductionism had not run its course. As a succession of ever-more-powerful biomolecular technologies followed, biologists of all sorts – agricultural scientists, medical researchers, ecologists, biotechnologists – really did want the full parts list – every gene, every protein, every control signal – and not only for humans. And they would have them.

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