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Organizers Note Growing Focus on Biology, Bioinformatics at ISMB 97

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HALKIDIKI, Greece--The Fifth International Conference on Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology (ISMB 97), held here June 21-25, reflects a growing focus on biology and the use of bioinformatics to tackle biological problems.

As the annual event has evolved, a key change "has been the stronger relation with experimental biology. This includes more interest in specific biological problems and more relation with experimental data," said Alfonso Valencia of Madrid's Centro Nacional de Biotechnologia, one of six scientists on the organizing committee. "This is reflected in a larger number of biologists attending the conference and presenting work in bioinformatics strongly rooted in biology."

The bioinformatics thrust has come at the expense of the event's original focus, artificial intelligence, noted fellow organizer Kevin Karplus, of the University of California at Santa Cruz. The "emphasis on artificial intelligence has dropped considerably, being replaced with more mathematical and statistical approaches," he explained.

"Still, the computer scientist influence is much stronger and probably will remain so," Valencia said. "To counterbalance that, every year some of the most relevant invited speakers are biologists with interests in new techniques and who are working in new fields. These lectures bring new ideas and fresh approaches to the conference."

"Last year there was a lot of excitement around Hidden Markov Models (HMMs)," Karplus recalled. "HMMs still play a major role in a lot of the papers, but this year's conference seems more balanced, without a single dominant topic."

When the conference was announced, organizers acknowledged that "one topic of particular interest to funding agencies this year is automatic annotation of genome sequence data." The last day of the conference is devoted to functional annotation, including an afternoon workshop with eight speakers representing not only the research, but also the business and grant-agency perspectives. "The incredible influx of information generated from different sequencing projects and the associated new techniques in biotechnology are having a major impact on the conference," Valencia observed. "Computational techniques related to genomics are probably the fastest growing scientific topic of the conference."

Another highlight will be the four keynote lectures presented Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evenings by, respectively, Fotis Kafatos, director general of EMBL-Heidelberg and a specialist in molecular and evolutionary genetics in insects; Hans Westerhoff of Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, who has an expertise in quantitative microbiology and mathematical biochemistry; Marcie McClure of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, a specialist in computational biology and molecular evolution, and in the development and analysis of software tools; and Richard Lathrop of the University of California at Irvine, an expert in artificial intelligence, whose talk will be "partly humorous, partly tutorial, and partly our recent research in protein threading," he said.

"No computer program would so change the face of experimental molecular biology practice today as one that quickly and reliably computed the correct folded three-dimensional structure of an input amino acid sequence," Lathrop told BioInform. "Nevertheless, after more than a quarter-century of effort by some of the best scientific minds of our time, the general problem is still far from solved. This talk will survey some of the bright ideas of the field and look at why they fail to solve the problem, including some of our recent bright ideas, which also fail to solve the problem. Along the way we will try to indicate the progress that has been made, and prognosticate about promising future directions."

Approximately 300 attendees are expected. Thanks to the location in Southern Europe--a first for the conference, which has been in the U.S. every year except 1995--more European participation is expected. "For European scientific policymakers this is an important point and one of the reasons for their enthusiastic support," Valencia said.

In addition to Karplus and Valencia the organizing committee includes Terry Gaasterland of the Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago; Peter Karp of SRI International and Stanford University; Christos Ouzounis of SRI International and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory-European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI); and Chris Sander, also of EMBL-EBI.

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