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Bioinformatics—Biology meets Big Data

  dan david june 20155The Black Plague killed between 75-200 million people across Eurasia, decimating 30-60% of Europe’s population in less than 10 years. Blamed for the 14th century pandemic were astrological alignments, lepers, Romani and the ‘poisoning of wells by Jews’, of whose population 200 villages were exterminated in retribution. While humans gradually advanced from that era of misguided superstition, it has only been in very recent years that scientific thought, with the aid of powerful computational capabilities, has begun to take on the largest biological questions and to grasp definitive answers. Enter the Age of Bioinformatics.

Paulien Hogeweg and Ben Hesper coined the term Bioinformatics in 1970 to describe the study of information processes in biotic systems. It was the work of Margaret Oakley Dayhoff and Nobel Prize winning biochemist Frederick Sanger, however, that ushered in the era of Bioinformatics with the use of computers to sequence proteins as early as the 1950s. As the relationship between genes and disease became understood and computing tools more advanced, information technology established its place as an indispensible tool of biology.

Fast forward to the 21st century—“The Big Data” era, where high powered computing systems and sophisticated algorithm designs are powering an incredible velocity of data-influenced advancement in every imaginable field. Computer processing speed having reached the practical nexus of “Moore’s Law,” technology tools can now help us quickly analyze and cross reference massive data sets on everything from retail sales to weather patterns.

These advances have not passed over biological science. Human Genome sequencing is complete. Rapid advances in gene-based drug discovery and development are afoot. Scientists use Bioinformatics systems as complex and ingenious as the organic systems they study to extract useful results from terabytes of statistical and visual data, predicting outcomes with never before possible accuracy. The results are promising—In 2014, a gene sequencing enabled therapy appears to have “cured” most trial patients of the congenital “bubble boy” syndrome which perplexed doctors for decades.

Some of the most important research may come in the ongoing effort to cure cancer. Companies like Google backed Flatiron are aiming to collect complex data from treatment of 1 million cancer patients by 2016 in order to arm physicians with enough statistical insight to determine the best treatment option for each individual patient.

From a growth perspective, the Bioinformatics market —estimated at $4.2 billion in 2015 —is poised to reach $13.3 billion by 2020, growing at a 21% CARG. Harvard, Stanford, MIT and other universities offer specialized Bioinformatics Master and PhD degrees.  The market has welcomed more than a dozen highly sophisticated workflow management systems for Bioinformatics, while a constellation of Bioinformatics conferences and professional organizations have popped up in response, all adding to the rapid proliferation and advance of the industry.

Thanks to Bioinformatics, things even look bright for the Black Plague. In 2001 scientists at the aptly named Sanger Center in Cambridge, England finally cracked the complete genome code of Yersinia Pestis—the bacterium behind the pandemic.