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Bioinformatics Blooms (Relatively Speaking) at Post-Acquisition HP Labs

SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 20 - For bioinformatics researchers at post-acquisition Hewlett-Packard Labs, bigger appears to be better.


It has been almost eight months since HP bought Compaq. Yet though it's still early days in the merging of cultures and businesses, bioinformaticists at HP's headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., are already feeling the impact.


"I was sort of the lone ranger [of bioinformatics] for awhile," explained Peter Markstein, a principal scientist at HP. At the beginning of 2001, Markstein switched research pursuits from designing chip architecture to developing approaches to finding promoter and gene-regulation sequences in the fruit-fly genome.


Markstein said it was a hobby he had started at home. (In fact his wife is a computer scientist and organizer of the Bay Area Bioinformatics Group, and a daughter studying developmental biology at Berkeley and the University of Chicago had presented Markstein a DNA-sequence search problem; the search-engine algorithms he went on to design as a solution are now used to find nucleotide sequences on his daughter's research group's Drosophila melanogaster search-engine website.)


In addition, to add molecular biology and lab knowledge to his mathematics and computer-sciences background, Markstein enrolled in night classes at the University of California, Santa Cruz's bioinformatics certificate program. And with the encouragement of HP management, he took his hobby to work, and then made it his work.


"HP realized bioinformatics was going to be an important field," he said in a recent interview with GenomeWeb.


While HP Labs may not be swarming with bioinformaticists after the acquisition, Markstein is no longer alone. Li Zhang and Yunhong Zhou, both from Compaq, have joined HP's ranks as researchers studying bioinformatics. Their focus is on reconstructing phylogenetic traits.


"Whether they are going to be involved furthering that sort of work or whether we will all become a department, that is unclear," said Markstein. Currently, it is "all exploratory."


Though "right now [it's] informal," there has been a "management decision [for] more research into the bioinformatics area," according to Dave Berman, an HP Labs spokesperson. He added that a handful of other researchers at pre-acquisition HP did work involving bioinformatics.


For pre-acquisition Compaq bioinformatics researchers, who worked in a research effort totaling about 100 scientists, the addition of approximately 650 colleagues--whose research fields cover a broad range of technologies including printing and imaging, Internet, and computer platforms--has already expanded their horizons.


"HP has a much larger research organization [that] expands opportunities for collaborations," said Zhang. "With Compaq, it was a relatively small lab. If you worked on bioinformatics, you could only work on one or two projects. You didn't have enough resources, you couldn't work on vanity projects. Now we interact with people beyond our small group."


Those interactions span the approximately 750 scientists at HP Labs sites in Palo Alto; Cambridge, Mass.; Bristol, UK; Tokyo; and Haifa, Israel, said Berman.


And while Markstein claims it will take at least three to five years for most work in the lab to wind up in the development side of the business--if it lands there at all--Berman said the lab both leads and follows HP's business units.


The life-sciences unit has also put better bioinformatics on their radar, according to Lionel Binns, worldwide life and materials science manager at HP. Binns said the combined life-sciences division--300-strong, distributed equally from HP and Compaq pre-acquisition--out of a total HP employee base of 130,000 resembles the former Compaq division, though with additional sales and sales-support people. Binns said penetrating the bioinformatics market, along with genomics and proteomics, was a goal the life sciences unit at Compaq had brought to HP.

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