Since its launch at the Pacific Symposium of Biocomputing in 1998, the Asia-Pacific Bioinformatics Network (APBioNet) has grown to more than 350 members from 56 organizations in 13 countries. This rapid growth reflects the mounting interest in bioinformatics in the Asia-Pacific region as well as the enormous challenges of ramping up the region’s infrastructure to meet the demands of the field.
The Asia-Pacific region is unique, according to APBioNet vice president Shoba Ranganathan, because “there are some very technologically advanced countries, but other countries have no Internet.” Bridging this technical divide has become the group’s primary mission. Through the development of a regional network infrastructure, distribution of key bioinformatics databases, and the sponsorship of workshops, training programs, and conferences, the non-profit organization hopes to keep the region’s bioinformatics practitioners in pace with the rapid growth of the field.
Ranganathan said that the group is the first of its kind. Europe’s EMBnet, for example, addresses the larger sphere of molecular biology, and only touches on bioinformatics. As the “first trans-national and regional bioinformatics organization,” Ranganathan said that APBioNet has already paved the way for similar groups in South America, the Caribbean, and Africa.
Member countries include Australia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Nepal, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and the US. Individual and academic institutional membership is free. Industry sponsors include Sun Microsystems and Compaq, which also offers a hardware discount for members.
A key APBioNet initiative is the development of a bioinformatics infrastructure in collaboration with the Asia-Pacific Advanced Network Project (APAN). This partnership has brought Internet2 connectivity to several developing countries in the region and also backs the BioMirrors project — eight mirror nodes throughout the region that offer free access to 22 core bioinformatics databases.
New initiatives include the APBioGrid, a distributed regional computing network that would be dedicated to bioinformatics [BioInform 02-21-02]. Cray has donated a computer to this effort and negotiations are also underway with Platform Computing. The group is also considering setting up a dedicated server to offer both commercial and freely available software applications. APBioNet members are currently reviewing the EMBOSS software suite and the alpha version of the Java-based JEMBOSS.
Also under discussion is the concept of a network of Asia-Pacific Bioinformatics Institutes to serve as hubs for bioinformatics research and education. Ranganathan said this proposal has “generated a lot of interest” and a task force has been created to handle proposals from potential host institutions. APBioNet expects the ABIs to be selected by the end of the year, with operations beginning by 2003.
Most recently, APBioNet hosted the world’s bioinformatics community at the first International Conference in Bioinformatics, held in Bangkok, Thailand. Ranganathan said the meeting was the first major bioinformatics conference to be held in Asia outside of Japan — one sign that APBioNet''''s efforts are paying off already.