by July 4, 2002 0 comments



Biotech is being seen as infotech’s stepsister Cindrella, who, as the infotech charm appears to fade, is on its way to ruling the roost. For the IT professional, though, it is not as much biotech as it is bioinformatics that is of interest. PCQuest scratched the surface of the biotech hype to find out where exactly IT professionals fit in and how they can get there 

Do You Fit?
Options for those with a computing background
Where it’s Used
A fast growing field involving complex calculations of genetic information
Course of Action
Bioinformatics courses for IT professionals and freshers
Bioinformatics Toolbox
Tools and databases created and used by bioinformaticians
Protein Explorer 
This software explores macromolecule structures in 3D

What prevents meat eaters from ordering a sumptuous plate of pork chops for dinner at a fancy restaurant? Usually, the large amount of saturated fats in it. If you’re not averse to genetically modified food, you can look forward to pork that contains not only 20 percent less saturated fats but also the goodness of spinach (palak). Scientists at a Japanese university inserted the FAD2 gene (found in spinach), which converts saturated fat into an unsaturated fat called linoleic acid, into fertilized pig eggs and implanted them into the womb of a normal pig. The pigs born had lesser saturated fatty acids. It is in this breed of pigs that for the first time vegetable genes have been inserted in a living animal. Popeye pig?

Research like this has been carried on for ages now. Originally, you had no other go, but to carry out the research on a large number and across generations of organisms, using statistical methods to arrive at the expected results. This was exhausting, expensive and time consuming.

Bioinformatics, a field spun off from biotechnology, offers a much faster and often cheaper way to arrive at the same results. On powerful computers, you can model the chemical interactions that happen and simulate many generations of an organism. So, the final live tests need be done only to confirm the selected samples from the bioinformatic modeling.

Such research requires comparing DNA sequences, localizing genes, breaking down protein structures, etc. This data is very complex. For example, the set of genes in each of us is the same, but our DNAs vary. So, to know which drug to administer for what ailment, for instance, requires isolation to be done at complex molecular levels.

Biotech vs bioinformatics

Biotechnology is defined as applying biological knowledge and techniques to develop products or run a process. More specifically, in modern context, biotechnology involves understanding or modifying genetic material of living cells so that they will produce new substances or perform functions that they hitherto did not.
Bioinformatics or computational biology, on the other hand, refers to the use of computational and statistical techniques to collect, organize, search and analyze biological data, specifically nucleic acid and protein sequences. Bioinformatics also studies, based on computer modeling and simulation, the result of interactions between these building blocks of life.

Because of its sheer complexity, this data is also mammoth. For example, GenBank, a collection of all publicly available DNA sequences, contained more than 17 billion nucleotide bases from over 100,000 species in March this year. And the number of bases in GenBank double approximately every 14 months!

It is this need to analyze and interpret humungous amount of complex data that requires the efficient use of IT. It is here that computer scientists fit in, as unlike biologists they have expertise in these areas. They can design algorithms, create databases, develop tools to query those databases, and present them in a usable and friendly interface. 

Juhi Bhambal

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