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Conference Blends Bioinformatics With Biodiversity, Environmental Informatics

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CANBERRA--The International Conference on Biological Informatics, held here July 6-8 by the Australian Academy of Science, offered a uniquely broad view of applications of informatics technologies to a variety of scientific disciplines related to biology. Along with standard bioinformatics topics such as molecular informatics, genomics, and informatics training, the agenda included talks on medical informatics, neuroinformatics, and informatics in biodiversity and environmental research.

A program of 10 visiting and 22 Australian speakers from both the research and business communities presented views of the future of biology as it will be affected by the information sciences to a group of 200 attendees. Michael Pitman, foreign secretary of the Australian Academy of Science, noted that "the accumulation of biological data for its own sake has become a useless exercise." Others called for biological informatics not only to cope with, but to put to good use, data that are inexorably accumulating.

The conference argued that confining the term bioinformatics only to data from studies of genes and chromosomes is unduly restrictive. John Stocker, who holds the position of chief scientist of Australia, noted, "this conference is about the burgeoning application of information science and technology to many biological fields, including biodiversity, neuroscience, medicine, and numerous other branches of biological science." He called the meeting an "opportunity to build bridges among the various branches of life sciences." His remarks were echoed by other speakers, many of whom credited the foresight of the academy in organizing the meeting.

Attendees were exposed to a broad diversity of biological applications. Speakers explained that biodiversity informatics seeks to provide data not only on individual species but also on the environmental conditions favored by each species, as well as the pharmaceutical or other value that a species might provide to the economy.

Environmental informatics aims to correlate habitat requirements of many species at once, in order to provide contingency scenarios so that decisionmakers can balance competing interests.

Medical and neuroinformatics stretch the current ability to model the brain so that surgeons and other medical professionals can practice on virtual patients prior to actually performing certain procedures.

Speakers suggested that sequence informatics has had the upper hand for some years because the research can be applied immediately, for instance in pharmaceutical development. Yet, they noted, the use of informatics technologies in each area of biology overlaps the boundaries of the others. Much can be gained by sharing findings among levels of biological organization, they contended.

"Life is characterized by individuality, historicity, contingency, and a high information content. There is no law of large numbers. Every living thing is truly unique," remarked Robert Robbins, vice-president for information technology at Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

"Because no one human mind can keep track of the histories, contingent events, and individuality of multiple organisms--whether individuals, populations or species--we need to employ the special capacities of computers for this task," he continued. "In order to better understand the world in which we live, we need the computational capacity to collate, correlate, and analyze data about interactions among unique genes, genomes, individual organisms, populations of organisms, or entire species----and we need networking capacity to communicate the results of computations carried out among multiple computers."

UK Chief Science Advisor Sir Robert May predicted that the next century will be the "Age of Biology." "Those countries who best know how to correlate, analyze, and communicate biological information will be in the leading position to achieve economic and scientific advances," he said.

The meeting was organized by a committee chaired by Ebbe Nielsen, head of the Australian delegation to the Organization for Economic Co operation and Development (OE CD) Megascience Forum's Working Group on Biological Informatics. The group will report to OECD governments on biological informatics before the end of 1998. James Edwards of the US National Science Foundation, the group's chairman; Thomas Lovejoy of the World Bank and the Smithsonian Institution, chairman of the Sub group on Biodiversity Inform atics; and Stephen Koslow of the US National Institutes of Health, chairman of the Subgroup on Neuro in form atics, were among the speakers.

--Meredith A. Lane

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