Bioinformatics FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) - What is bioinformatics
This resource is maintained by and © Damian Counsell, UK Medical Research Council Rosalind Franklin Centre
for Genomic Research (the RFCGR) 1998-2004.
Jump to the table of contents of the whole FAQ.
Definitions: What is
- The Tight Definition
- The Loose Definition
- Definitions of fields related to bioinformatics
Definition of Bioinformatics: What is
Roughly, bioinformatics describes any use of computers to
handle biological information.
In practice, the definition used by most people is narrower;
bioinformatics to them is a synonym for "computational molecular
biology"---the use of computers to characterize the molecular
components of living things.
Bioinformatics?---The Tight Definition
Most biologists talk about "doing bioinformatics" when they use
computers to store, compare,
retrieve, analyze or predict the
composition or the structure of biomolecules. As
computers become more powerful you could probably add
simulate to this list of bioinformatics verbs.
"Biomolecules" include your genetic material---nucleic acids---and
the products of your genes: proteins. These are the
concerns of "classical" bioinformatics, dealing primarily with
Khairuddin Itam drew my attention to this crisp definition of
bioinformatics dating back to 1987, from P. Hogeweg:"[Bioinformatics
is] the study of informatic processes in biotic systems"
Fredj Tekaia at the Institut Pasteur offers
this definition of bioinformatics:
"The mathematical, statistical and computing methods
that aim to solve biological problems using DNA and amino acid
sequences and related information."
It is a mathematically interesting property of most large
biological molecules that they are polymers;
ordered chains of simpler molecular modules called
monomers. Think of the monomers as beads or
building blocks which, despite having different colours and shapes,
all have the same thickness and the same way of connecting to one
Monomers that can combine in a chain are of the same general
class, but each kind of monomer in that class has its own
well-defined set of characteristics.
Many monomer molecules can be joined together to form a single,
far larger, macromolecule. Macromolecules can have
exquisitely specific informational content and/or chemical
According to this scheme, the monomers in a given macromolecule
of DNA or protein can be treated computationally as letters
of an alphabet, put together in pre-programmed arrangements
to carry messages or do work in a cell.
(Continued on next part...)