What are the different areas in bioinformatics

Bioinformatics

"The science that combines biology and computer science"

Bioinformatics is a relatively new science. Although the term has been around since 1970, it meant something completely different back then. Originally intended as a study of information processes in biotic systems, bioinformatics is now the border science between biology and computer science. Then at the beginning of the 90s came the big show that not only gave her the limelight, but also the big boom - the human genome project. Since then, this discipline has not only become more and more important, it has also long been an indispensable part of medical-biological research.

Computer and bio - how do they fit together?

Bioinformatics is formulated in general, in English as bioinformatics or computational biology refers to the link between computer science and biology. That means trying to apply computer-aided methods to problems and questions in the life sciences.

This large scientific group includes a wide variety of disciplines and areas, such as medicine, biology and pharmacy, but also agricultural technology, nutritional sciences and food research. The special role and high relevance that bioinformatics assumes directly results from this large number of different areas of application.

As a "by-product" of computer use, a large amount of data is generated that would no longer be manageable for a long time without the use of huge storage media - keyword big data. That is why one of the tasks of bioinformatics is to develop structures to sort this data as efficiently as possible and make it available for further use.

The preparation and evaluation of the large number of data also offer the possibility of recognizing patterns. This is their second essential task. Using algorithms and statistical methods, connections are to be found within the data sets. Genes can be specifically localized in a sequence, 3D structures of proteins can be created or these can be sorted into “families”.

As can be seen quickly, bioinformatics is a highly specialized, interdisciplinary science that requires extensive knowledge of biology and computer science. For this reason, more and more colleges and universities are offering basic and advanced courses of study with different specializations.

From the computer screen to the laboratory

The first bioinformatics applications were developed and used for genetic research for DNA sequence analysis and for comparing the sequences. Sequence analysis is still used to quickly find patterns in protein and DNA sequences.

If one then wants to know whether two genes or proteins are homologous, i.e. related to one another, the structures in question can easily be compared with one another.

For this purpose, these are placed one on top of the other until the highest possible match can be seen. If this is significantly higher than would be expected with a coincidental similarity of the structures, a "relationship" can be assumed. This is important because the relationship implies a similar function and structure. Thus, with the help of known proteins and genes, conclusions can be drawn about as yet unknown by looking for homologues. Using algorithms and computerized databases, bioinformatics is an indispensable tool in the search for unknown genes and their functions.

Bioinformatics also plays a central role in genome research, the investigation of the entire genetic make-up. In this way, not only can individual fragments of the DNA being examined be found and identified, but they can also be combined to form an overall sequence. This technique reached its preliminary climax in the Human Genome Project (HGP). The project was launched in autumn 1990 by the Italian-American geneticist and population researcher at Stanford University (CA), Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza (1922 - 2018), with the aim of deciphering the entire human genome. That meant identifying all base pairs and their sequence in human DNA.

Almost 13 years later, since April 2003, the human genome has been officially deciphered and the HG project has been successfully completed. Complete sequencing of human DNA plays a major role in research into hereditary diseases and the causes of cancer. Novel methods, such as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), the so-called gene scissors, with which DNA can be manipulated in a targeted manner, are based on the fact that the sequence of the base pairs is known.

But even if the DNA is known and you know which amino acid is in which position, much is still unknown. The meaning of many genes is still in the dark and is being researched in follow-up projects of the HGP, such as the project launched by the International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGP) in 2008, which involves the molecular analysis and identification of very common types of cancer, such as prostate and lymphatic cancer of cancer markers for early detection as well as the development of body-friendly, tolerable therapies. Here, too, bioinformatic methods play an essential role in further uncovering the secrets of life.

Specialized and diverse

Bioinformatics is a very young, highly specialized science. It not only requires extensive knowledge of biology, mathematics and computer science, but also chemistry and the related branches of science. The corresponding courses of study at colleges and universities are therefore becoming more and more extensive.

Basic and in-depth knowledge of computer science, biology and mathematics is imparted in the bachelor's and master’s degree programs. These include, for example, genetics, theoretical computer science and knowledge of algorithms and data structures. Through special areas of specialization, such as applied or methodical bioinformatics, different competencies are deepened depending on the specialty. In addition to biological research, there are now numerous other fields of application in which bioinformatics plays an important role. In chemistry and biochemistry, extensive reaction and substance databases help not only to keep track of things, but also to research new synthesis routes. The visualization of chemical structures is essential in order to generate tailor-made molecules for a specific application.

In the technological area, processes can be optimized through process control and computer-aided syntheses in order to achieve the best possible results. But there are also many possibilities beyond biochemical research, e.g. in the areas of artificial intelligence or robotics. Interdisciplinary sciences such as bioinformatics are becoming increasingly important due to the ever-increasing networking of different areas.

Of bits, bytes and molecules

If we can already successfully treat some hereditary diseases today and learn to understand how cancer develops and what we can do about it, we owe this in large part to bioinformatics. The ability not only to generate large amounts of data, but also to manage and analyze them with the aid of computers, not only made it possible to decipher the human genome, but also opened up numerous new perspectives for the production of novel active ingredients for environmentally friendly agriculture and for pharmaceuticals.

As specialized as this science and the associated training is, the areas of application are just as varied. From the structure decoding of genes to the simulation of protein structures and computer-aided chemical synthesis to artificial intelligence: New challenges are waiting to be accepted and mastered everywhere.