Related: Computational Biology, Computational Molecular Biology, Biocomputing
Bioinformatics derives knowledge from computer analysis of biological data. These can consist of the information stored in the genetic code, but also experimental results from various sources, patient statistics, and scientific literature. Research in bioinformatics includes method development for storage, retrieval, and analysis of the data. Bioinformatics is a rapidly developing branch of biology and is highly interdisciplinary, using techniques and concepts from informatics, statistics, mathematics, chemistry, biochemistry, physics, and linguistics. It has many practical applications in different areas of biology and medicine.
The history of computing in biology goes back to the 1920s when scientists were already thinking of establishing biological laws solely from data analysis by induction (e.g. A.J. Lotka, Elements of Physical Biology, 1925). However, only the development of powerful computers, and the availability of experimental data that can be readily treated by computation (for example, DNA or amino acid sequences and three-dimensional structures of proteins) launched bioinformatics as an independent field. Today, practical applications of bioinformatics are readily available through the world wide web, and are widely used in biological and medical research. As the field is rapidly evolving, the very definition of bioinformatics is still the matter of some debate.
The relationship between computer science and biology is a natural one for several reasons. First, the phenomenal rate of biological data being produced provides challenges: massive amounts of data have to be stored, analysed, and made accessible. Second, the nature of the data is often such that a statistical method, and hence computation, is necessary. This applies in particular to the information on the building plans of proteins and of the temporal and spatial organisation of their expression in the cell encoded by the DNA. Third, there is a strong analogy between the DNA sequence and a computer program (it can be shown that the DNA represents a Turing Machine).
Analyses in bioinformatics focus on three types of datasets: genome sequences, macromolecular structures, and functional genomics experiments (e.g. expression data, yeast two-hybrid screens). But bioinformatic analysis is also applied to various other data, e.g. taxonomy trees, relationship data from metabolic pathways, the text of scientific papers, and patient statistics. A large range of techniques are used, including primary sequence alignment, protein 3D structure alignment, phylogenetic tree construction, prediction and classification of protein structure, prediction of RNA structure, prediction of protein function, and expression data clustering. Algorithmic development is an important part of bioinformatics, and techniques and algorithms were specifically developed for the analysis of biological data (e.g., the dynamic programming algorithm for sequence alignment).
Bioinformatics has a large impact on biological research. Giant research projects such as the human genome project would be meaningless without the bioinformatics component. The goal of sequencing projects, for example, is not to corroborate or refute a hypothesis, but to provide raw data for later analysis. Once the raw data are available, hypotheses may be formulated and tested in silico. In this manner, computer experiments may answer biological questions which cannot be tackled by traditional approaches. This has led to the founding of dedicated bioinformatics research groups as well as to a different work practice in the average bioscience laboratory where the computer has become an essential research tool.
Three key areas are the organisation of knowledge in databases, sequence analysis, and structural bioinformatics.