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Genome Informatics Conference Hits Its Stride as World-Class Bioinformatics Event

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More than 700 people assembled in Tokyo December 17-19 for the 12th International Conference on Genome Informatics, firmly establishing its reputation as a major meeting in a scientifically and commercially important region. “It was a bigger success than I could have imagined,” said Hideo Matsuda, program committee co-chair.

Long-term attendees remarked on the conference’s increasing importance. Not only does it serve as a regional meeting for scientists working in Australia, Singapore, Korea, and Taiwan, but it has drawn increasing interest from European and US researchers too.

The meeting has “really come of age,” said Richard Lathrop, a computer scientist from the University of California, Irvine, who said he attended the first Genome Informatics Workshop (as it was known until 1995), when presenters lectured in Japanese and researchers argued over whether computational methods really could contribute anything to biology.

The conference’s rising star can be linked to increasing interest in bioinformatics generally. Nonetheless, GIW has distinguished itself both regionally and internationally. It provides a rare opportunity for scientists from the US, Europe, and Asia to meet and exchange ideas. And GIW places a much-needed spotlight on work going on in Japanese labs. “Some of the best bioinformatics work is in Japan,” noted presenter and program committee member Terry Gaasterland of Rockefeller University.

It was only this year that Japan established a significant academic foundation for bioinformatics research, with the opening of such institutions as the Kyoto University Bioinformatics Center and the Institute for Advanced Biosciences at Keio University. Computational biology in Japan has grown in large part under the influence of Minoru Kanehisa, chair of GIW 2001’s steering committee, the director of Kyoto’s Bioinformatics Center, and the first president of the Japanese Society for Bioinformatics.

The conference made clear just how widely his influence is felt. Invited speaker David Eisenberg, of the Laboratory of Structural Biology and Molecular Medicine at UCLA, remarked that it was Kanehisa’s work at Los Alamos in the 1970s that “got me into sequence alignment.”

Organizers said about half the papers submitted focused on sequence analysis and the second largest group dealt with gene expression and pathways.

Many of the posters displayed were devoted to gene networks and functional pathways, widely regarded as a promising direction for the field. It was also the source of organizers’ worries that a focus on mathematical theory and computation — an increasing trend in recent years — is overshadowing contributions from biology. With an eye to 2002, GIW planners are already searching for ways to encourage more experimental biologists to participate.

Now organizers are confident that GIW has made a name for itself alongside such meetings as the Pacific Symposium on Biocomputing and RECOMB. Regarding its international status and ability to draw quality presentations, Kenta Nakai, GIW 2002 program co-chair, noted, “I have no worries.” More taxing will be the realization of his theme for the year ahead: informatics that is truly useful to biology.

— Sara Harris, Tokyo

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