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ISMB: Computational Biology Pros Benefit From Cross Fertilization of Disciplines


HEIDELBERG, Germany--The diversity of topics addressed by 10 tutorials, 34 peer-reviewed papers, 8 keynote lectures, and 167 posters at the Seventh International Conference on Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology was an indicator that computational biology has come into its own as a professional discipline, organizers of the meeting told BioInform. ISMB '99 was held here August 6-10 by the International Society for Computational Biology with support from several US and German commercial and government entities. The meeting, which has roots as a small, academic gathering, drew 655 attendees, including more than 215 registrants from industry and 13 commercial exhibitors. By country, Germany and the US were most heavily represented, although scientists from the UK, Japan, France, Sweden, Israel, and Nepal were also present.

Larry Hunter, current president of the International Society for Computational Biology, said the meeting's growth--40 percent since 1998--is proof that computational biology has gained recognition as a discipline outside of computer science and molecular biology. "There's a kind of computational sophistication and molecular biology sophistication that is shared in this community now. You can't go to a biology or a computer science meeting and have that be true," Hunter said. "We are developing our own core set of tools and background knowledge, and the growth comes because people want to be computational biologists."

David States of the Institute for Biomedical Computing at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., said the increased attendance also indicates that "laboratories appreciate the need to assign people to get up to speed" in the field. States added that, while past meetings have been largely devoted to sequence acquisition, mapping, and assembly algorithms, ISMB has evolved to address the need to understand the data being generated. He added, "We're reaching the limits of biology as a cottage industry."

Tom Lengauer, chair of the ISMB program committee, said about half of the eight keynote addresses were planned to advise the audience about new advances in bioinformatics. Other speakers, he said, were invited to introduce new ideas to the community.

Hunter said the exchange of technological approaches over the years has resulted in "an interesting cross fertilization." For instance, he pointed to the discussion by Michael Sternberg of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London of the potential use for inductive logic programming in protein structure research. "That is something he would not have considered five years ago," Hunter contended. "To have one of the leaders in the field raise it as a speculative issue in his keynote shows the power of the crossover."

Other highlights of the meeting included a discussion of new work in natural language data processing, an announcement by Amos Bairoch that the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics has undertaken a Human Proteome Initiative to annotate all known human proteins not yet contained in Swiss Prot, and a Drosophila annotation competition that generated a poster for the meeting. "To my knowledge, this was the first time an open competition on previously unseen data has been tried in the sequence world," remarked Hunter.

While organizers expressed delight with the conference turnout, and many attendees commented on the high quality of poster presentations, some expressed disappointment in the conference's move away from a focus on intelligent systems toward bioinformatics. "Tweaking another algorithm is nothing new, it's not cutting edge science, and automating tools used in day to day bioinformatics isn't intelligent systems, it's more engineering," commented a pharmaceutical industry attendee. "There's nothing new I'll take back from this meeting that will make a bit of difference for anyone in my group," he added.

But in his keynote address, Anthony Kerlavage of Celera Genomics quantified the work that the computational biology field faces. He predicted that several hundred thousand new genes will be discovered in the next three years, and observed that some functional data exists now for fewer than 6,000 genes while genetic variation is known for fewer than 300 genes. The field requires improved algorithms, means of integrating sequence, function, and other data, and tools for querying and visualizing data and performing dynamic annotation, he said.

San Diego is the planned site for the Eighth International Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology conference, August 20-23, 2000. More information will be available at

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