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Bioinformatics: The Early Years

Bioinformatics historians take note: PLOS Computational Biology has published a comprehensive backgrounder on the field's biggest annual meeting — the Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology conference, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year.

Larry Hunter, who spearheaded the first ISMB in 1993, shares details on how the meeting grew out of a small group of artificial intelligence researchers with an interest in molecular biology. Other early organizers like Richard Lathrop, Russ Altman, Peter Karp, David Searls, and Alfonso Valencia weigh in on how the meeting — and the field in general — has changed during the past 20 years.

The first meeting was done "on a shoestring," Hunter says. "The program covers one 8.5 x 11 sheet, both sides, which I folded into three and made a nice, neat schedule, complete with the poster session. I kind of remember, now, putting that together on my early Mac. We did things pretty much on the cheap."

At the time, Lathrop says, "nobody had even broached the idea of sequencing the human genome. It was just too gargantuan and mammoth a task, and was considered almost heresy in its early days."

And despite the huge amount of progress during the last 20 years, there's still plenty of room for better bioinformatics tools. "We can sequence somebody's genome, and we've learned virtually nothing with any reasonable amount of certainty," Karp says. "I sure hope that in 10 or 20 years, we can do a lot more with a personal genome … predict not just that they're five percent more likely to get some disease, but that they're 90 percent more likely to get one or more diseases. And the treatment that will help that individual."

For more reflections on ISMB's first 20 years, check out a recent interview with Hunter at our sister publication BioInform.

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