Bioinformatics has been defined as the mathematical, statistical, and computational methods that are directed toward solving various biological problems by using DNA, amino acid sequences, and other related biological information. Inherently, the field of bioinformatics is dependent on computer technology to store, retrieve, analyze, and actually predict the composition and structure of biomolecules, for example, nucleic acids (genetic material).
The advent of bioinformatic methods was pivotal and necessary in completing the Human Genome Project, and with its completion, many scientists now refer to our living in the “postgenomic” era. This technology and knowledge will without a doubt affect many fields of study and how they are studied. For example, now that entire genomes are completed and available, we are better able to examine the differences and similarities among the genes in multiple species. Information gained from these types of studies may be useful in establishing conclusions about evolution; this new branch of science in known as “comparative genomics.”
There are many interdisciplinary fields that are related to and incorporated into bioinformatics. One of these fields is “biophysics,” a field that applies methods and techniques from the physical sciences in order to understand biological structures and functions. Another important field is “computational biology,” which is an approach that involves the use of computers to study and analyze biological processes. “Medical informatics” is a discipline that is concerned with the implementation of structures and algorithms that are to be used for the manipulation of medical data for the population at large.
Another field incorporated into bioinformatics that uses a combination of chemical synthesis, biological screening, and data-mining approaches in order to guide drug discovery and development is known as “cheminformatics.” This is important because the discovery of new drugs is typically the result of chance, long-term observation, labor-intensive chemistry, and trial-and-error processes. Now, the possibility of using bioinformatic technology to better plan the development of new drugs intelligently and to automate their chemical synthesis is becoming a reality.
The fields that look to benefit the most from bioinformatics and may have the most impact on humankind and their quality of life are “pharmacogenomics” and “pharmacogenetics.” Pharmacogenomics uses the application of genomic approaches (which is the analysis of an entire genome) to determine the identification of drug targets in a biological system. This will be useful in investigating the patterns of gene expression in the pathogen and in the host during infection, which will lend insight as to how host immunity fights off infection and how some organisms circumvent the host’s immune system. This approach can also be useful in diagnostic procedures, for example, by examining expression patterns found in tumors that are different from those expressed by normal cells. The identification of these different expression patterns will lead to improvement in therapeutic approaches.
Pharmacogenetics, which is thought to be a subset of pharmacogenomics, uses genomic and bioinformatic methods in order to identify characteristics of a particular patient response to a single drug and then uses that information to improve the administration and development of therapies. This is important because every individual responds differently to drug treatments; for example, Drug A may affect most of the population positively, others with little change, and some with adverse side effects and life-threatening allergic reactions. The reason why everyone responds differently is because of the variations in genetic makeup, which can lead to a difference in the expression of a certain protein(s) that will evidently cause a different type of reaction or response in an individual from a particular drug. Pharmacogenetics is recently being implemented to optimize doses of chemotherapy in individual patients with certain types of cancer, more notably prostate cancer. This is giving raise to the concept of “personalized medicine” and may change the way medicine is practiced in the not-too-distant future.
Besides the tremendous contribution that bioinformatics has made to the Human Genome Project, it will eventually have a massive impact on fields such as anthropology, biological research, pharmaceutical development, and clinical medicine. Of course, improvements in computer technology and hardware will also contribute to the manner in which bioinformatics is utilized and advanced.
- Ewens, W. J., & Grant, G. R. (2005). Statistical methods in bioinformatics: An introduction (Statistics for biology and health) (2nd ed.). New York:Springer.
- Jones, N. C., & Pevzner, P. A. (2004). An introduction to bioinformatics algorithms (Computational molecular biology). New York: MIT Press.
- Mount, D. (2001). Bioinformatics: Sequence and genome analysis. New York: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.