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Text Messaging Is for Wimps: BioWAP Brings Bioinformatics Tools to Your Cell Phone

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Maybe you don’t feel the need to do whole-genome Blast searches on your Palm Pilot during your morning commute, but if Mauno Vihinen and his colleagues are right, the days of wireless bioinformatics aren’t that far off.

Vihinen, of Finland’s Institute of Medical Technology at the University of Tampere, has developed BioWAP — an Internet service based on the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) standard that provides mobile access to bioinformatics databases and software.

While conceding that the current demand for such a tool “is not that great at the moment,” Vihinen said the current growth of mobile services and devices points clearly to the inevitable need for a mobile bioinformatics service.

The display, computing power, and memory capabilities of current mobile devices are admittedly not up to the demands of full-scale bioinformatics, but these features are improving rapidly, Vihinen said. “It’s the same situation as a decade ago when the capabilities of computers were the limiting step in bioinformatics,” he noted. Some research labs already use mobile devices in local area networks, he added, the first sign that more widespread adoption can’t be too far off.

“People want to do things not only on their desk or their lap, but wherever,” he said.

Obviously, detailed graphics and long alignment strings are out of the question for the tiny screen on your cell phone, but Vihinen said that “many basic parameters or references” work just fine with a cell phone or PDA. “For example, looking for what sort of motifs or patterns from Prosite are present in a certain sequence or just to check for the molecular weight.”

In addition to Prosite, EMBL, Swiss-Prot, Trembl, the Protein Data Bank, and 14 immunodeficiency mutation databases are also accessible with BioWAP. There are seven categories of analysis and search services: amino acids and codons, DNA/RNA sequences, protein sequences, PDB structures, Enzyme Commission nomenclature, mutation databases, and an SRS search. Vihinen and his colleagues describe these BioWAP features in detail in an article in the September issue of Bioinformatics.

Any mobile phone or PDA equipped with WAP browser software can be used as a BioWAP terminal. Users can access the server with any WAP gateway that allows access to the BioWAP website, www.bioinf.uta.fi/wml/welcome.wml. Although the service is run in Finland, Vihinen said that users could avoid the expense of long-distance calls through local gateways that can be found at www.wapdrive.com.

Although Vihinen expects BioWAP use to be limited for the next year or so, he is confident that rapid improvements in mobile technology will soon make it a viable tool for bioinformatics research.

BioWAP was developed without any industrial support, and Vihinen foresees keeping it available as a free service for the time being. However, he hasn’t ruled out licensing it to an industrial partner if the technology does catch on. “This is the first and only mobile bioinformatics service, so people would have to build what we already have done and I don’t know how much industry is interested in reinventing the wheel,” he said.

— BT

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