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Pacific Symposium Brings Together Biologists, Computer Scientists

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KAPALUA, Hawaii--The 1998 Pacific Symposium on Biocomputing, held here January 4-9, has attracted a diverse international community of researchers with a program that aims to offer a unique opportunity for bioinformaticians and biologists to come together and share insights into the latest applications of computational methods to problems in biology. This year's event will have "a primary focus on the data-rich area of molecular biology," according to organizer Russ Altman, of Stanford University, who observed that the symposium "has been designed to be maximally responsive to the need for critical mass in subdisciplines within biocomputing." It will also feature a special session on building a bioinformatics infrastructure in the Pacific Rim.

"It is the only meeting whose tracks are defined dynamically, in response to specific proposals, each year; organized by leaders in the emerging subdisciplines; and targeted to provide a forum for publication and discussion of research in biocomputing's hot areas," Altman said. "In this way, the Pacific Symposium on Biocomputing provides an early forum for serious examination of emerging methods and approaches."

The symposium is sponsored by the newly formed International Society for Computational Biology and, along with the annual Intelligent Systems in Molecular Biology meeting, will become one of the two yearly conferences the society supports. The symposium received funding from the US Department of Energy, the US National Science Foundation, and corporate backers, including Zymogenetics, Pharmacia & Upjohn, and Millennium Pharmaceuticals. Organizers noted a change in the type of company that typically sponsors the symposium, from software companies a couple of years ago more toward pharmaceutical companies today.

Organizer Teri Klein, of the University of California, San Francisco, told BioInform that a pronounced trend at the symposium is a broadening of topics covered, from a narrow focus on sequencing a couple of years ago to "computing with biomolecules and what you can do with those; looking at gene structure, databases, how to evaluate data and how to find what you're looking for."

"There's more emphasis on relating sequence to function," Klein continued, citing the keynote address on "Structural Biology and Biocomputing: A Marriage Made in Heaven or in the Other Place?" by Gregory Petsko, director of the Rosenstiel Basic Medical Sciences Research Center at Brandeis University. In addition to his academic work, Petsko is also a founding scientist of the combinatorial chemistry company ArQule.

Klein also noted how the meeting has changed over the past three years from an original "very heavy" emphasis on computer science. "The organizers have made a strong effort to bring in biologists and chemists so the computer scientists aren't working in isolation," she explained. "There's more of a blending between biologists and computer scientists. It's an interdisciplinary meeting and we want people to have the opportunity to talk." Perhaps as a result, the symposium has become more popular in its third year. "The growth really is amazing," Klein observed. "This year there were 110 submitted papers, and we accepted about half of them." That compares to 50 papers submitted the first year and 75 last year, she said, adding that the symposium is unusual in its requirement that each presenter must write a paper; only the keynote speaker is invited. The result is "top people and a lot of new stuff," she claimed.

Attendance at the 1998 symposium will push 200, the maximum Klein said the event can comfortably sustain. "We try to keep it under 200 to facilitate interaction," she said. Because of the location there is a strong representation of Asia/Pacific scientists, Klein added, and a special section in the program on "Building Bioinformation Infrastructure in the Pacific Rim." Researchers from Europe and South America will also attend, in addition to a large North American contingent. There will also be a good mix of attendees from both the academic and business communities, she noted. While the symposium is primarily a research meeting, "we've always had good representation from industry," Klein told BioInform.

The symposium agenda is organized around several topic areas, including "Computing with Bio molecules," "Molecular Modeling in Drug Design and Biotech nology," "Molecules to Maps: Tools for Visualization and Interaction," "Protein Structure Prediction," "Gene Structure Identification in Large-Scale Genomic Sequences," "The Relationship between Protein Structure and Function: How Have Proteins Over Time Diverged in Function," "Complexity and Infor mation Theoretic Approaches to Biology," "Distributed and Intel ligent Databases," and "Gene Expression and Genetic Networks." Organizer Larry Hunter, of the US National Library of Medicine, commented, "Personally, I think the most exciting session is likely to be the one on gene expression."

In addition to Altman, Klein, and Hunter, the organizing committee for the 1998 symposium included Keith Dunker of Washington State University. Proceedings are available online at http://www-smi.stanford.edu/projects/helix/psb98.

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