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Bioinformatics FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) - What is bioinformatics

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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 Bioinformatics?

  • The Tight Definition
  • The Loose Definition
  • Definitions of fields related to bioinformatics

Definition of Bioinformatics: What is bioinformatics?

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.

What is Bioinformatics?---The Tight Definition

"Classical" bioinformatics

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 sequence analysis.

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 another.

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 properties.

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.

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Bioinformatics FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) - What is bioinformatics