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New Professional Society Targeting Bioinformaticists Unveiled at ISMB 97

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HALKIDI, Greece--Behind-the-scenes talks throughout the conference culminated in the announcement of a new professional organization, the International Society for Computational Biology, at ISMB '97, the fifth annual Intelligent Systems in Molecular Biology meeting, held here June 21-25. The organization had been in the discussion stages for the past year.

According to its mission statement, the society is "dedicated to advancing the scientific understanding of living systems through computation; our emphasis is on the role of computing and informatics in advancing molecular biology."

The group "aims to serve its membership by facilitating scientific communication through meetings, tutorials, publications, and by electronic means; by collecting and distributing information about training, education, and employment in the field; and by increasing the understanding of the significance of our endeavor in the larger scientific community and in the public at large," the statement continued.

Larry Hunter of the National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine is the society's president. Vice-president is Chris Rawlings, U.K. director of bioinformatics for SmithKline Beecham; treasurer is David States, director of the Institute for Biomedical Computing at Washington University; and secretary is Terry Gaasterland of the Argonne National Lab and the University of Chicago.

The society will host a web site, sponsor future ISMB meetings, and offer discounted conference registrations to members. Other projects under consideration include a journal, discounted subscriptions to other journals, a job fair, an updated list of bioinformatics training opportunities, a software/database repository, a repository for unrefereed technical reports, and a bioinformatics directory service.

In news from the conference, an emphasis on functional annotation emerged over the course of the five-day event. The first-day tutorial on the topic was well attended, and the afternoon of the final day was devoted to a workshop on "Automatic Annotation of Genome Sequence Data." The workshop featured a panel including bioinformatics pioneers Michael Ashburner and Chris Sander, both of the European Bioinformatics Institute, along with Antoine Danchin of the Institut Pasteur; Richard Durbin of the Sanger Center; Brian Karlak of Pangea Systems; Tod Klinger of Incyte Pharmaceuticals; Chris Overton of the University of Pennsylvania; and Alfred Zollner of MIPS. Sander chaired the workshop. One much-debated issue among workshop participants was the question of coming up with standards for annotation.

Nearly 300 scientists attended ISMB '97. A total of 32 papers were presented formally, selected from 85 that were submitted, and another 22 were presented as posters. Four distinguished scientists, including three biologists and a computer scientist, gave keynote speeches: Fotis Kafatos of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory; Hans Westerhoff of the Vrije Universiteit; Marcie McClure of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and Richard Lathrop of the University of California, Irvine.

Organizers noted that "in the past two years, bioinformatics has changed from a backwater to a tidal wave," and called the ISMB conference "a driving force behind that wave." There has also been a marked shift away from a largely academic orientation toward more pragmatic research efforts. Corporate presences at the conference included Glaxo Wellcome, SmithKline Beecham, Silicon Graphics, Sun Microsystems, and NetGenics.

The meeting's exotic location was popular with attendees, but presented occasional problems. Internet access was sporadic; one day the only connection available was through BioInform's dial-in link to America Online. Organizers were optimistic that next year's location in Canada will offer improved telecommunications options. ISMB '98 will be held in Montreal June 29-July 1, 1998.

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