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Bioinformatics is biology

November 12, 2011

Fifteen years ago bioinformatics, for the most part, was not biology. Going to a bioinformatics seminar was the dictionary definition of boring. It was mostly some computer guys making databases and plotting survival curves. For example I was thumbing through a book titled “Bioinformatics” (MIT press) from 2001 and listed for prerequisites it said, “Any prior knowledge of DNA, RNA or proteins is of course helpful but not required.” Things could not be any more different today, which why it is essential for biologist to embrace bioinformatics.

As a biologist your ultimate goal is finding the answer to biological questions and pushing methodologies beyond the state-of-the-art in the process. Today, much of this discover is being done processing large data sets, filtering lists, putting it into pathways and fishing out the gems from the mess. If you cannot do this you are doing science with yesteryears toolbox.

O.k. some people will say they can collaborate with a bioinformatician to get the ‘computer work’ done. Our brains are only so big and we only have so much time, so we cannot learn everything. To some extent this is true and collaboration often results in great science, but just as often it leads to missed opportunities. For example, you are the world’s leading expert on what you are working on, as you should be. You do some next-generation sequencing experiments (ChIP-seq, RNA-seq, RRBS-seq or whatever), hand off the data to a ‘bioinformatician’ who is an expert at processing the data and he hands you back some gene lists. The guys that did the data processing didn’t know what to look for and you don’t know what he did. There are so many ways to work the data up, slice and dice it and work with it until you find that gem. If you give it to someone else to work up there is a good chance he will miss that gem. Being able to work the data yourself on your time (ideas come at random times) is priceless and is probably often the difference between having a meaningless list of genes or an exciting discovery.

So my point as a biologist you should be 100% committed to answering biological questions by whatever means necessary. Today this involves using a computer as well as pipets. That is what is so great about science, it is always moving forward so we constantly have to reinvent ourselves. The more you can do the better equipped you are to discover.


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