Experts from two seemingly disparate disciplines met in Blacksburg, Va., on May 16-17 to explore how analytical technologies developed for geographic information systems could be applied to bioinformatics.
The first such symposium to bring these two areas of research together, “GIS Applications to Bioinformatics” was sponsored by Virginia Tech’s Office of GIS and Remote Sensing and the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute.
“There are things that the GIS community has gone through in terms of software development that the bioinformatics community could learn from,” said Bruno Sobral, director of the VBI.
James Campbell, professor and head of Virginia Tech’s geography department, said the value of GIS analytical systems and data structures to bioinformatics and, conversely, the usefulness of bioinformatics methodologies to GIS pattern recognition and analysis, are only now being recognized.
“The cross-pollination of research that is a goal of the symposium could accelerate multiple outcomes not even yet envisioned,” said Campbell.
While bioinformatics has focused on modeling from the level of the molecules up to the whole organism, GIS has created tools to model from the level of the ecosystem down, making the organism “a perfect meeting point for the two communities,” Sobral said.
The confluence of these approaches could eventually enable the modeling of very complex systems, Sobral said, such as tracking foot and mouth disease from the level of the virus’s individual DNA sequences all the way up to how the virus spreads in the environment.
This approach could have an impact on epidemiology, ecology, spatial analysis, precision agriculture, pattern recognition, geostatistics, and genomics. The long-term goal for the blend of technologies is to be able to model ecosystems all the way from the level of DNA up to weather patterns, Sobral said.
Carol Bult, one of the presenters at the symposium, discussed how she applied mapping concepts borrowed from the GIS community to a genome mapping system. A researcher at the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis at the University of Maine and also at the Jackson Lab, Bult developed the Genome Spatial Information System (GenoSIS), an integrated visualization and analysis tool for exploring the spatial organization of genome features.
“That notion of a map goes all the way from the level of a genome to a map of the United States,” said Sobral.
While Bult’s work is really the first direct application of GIS technology to bioinformatics, Sobral said the meeting was designed to raise awareness of the commonality between the approaches. He noted that a speaker following his keynote address borrowed his slide of the definition of bioinformatics and simply replaced “bioinformatics” with “GIS” to illustrate that both fields define their needs in a similar way.
Sobral said most of the 80 attendees from industry and academia felt the meeting was “long overdue.”
Virginia Tech is considering sponsoring another symposium on GIS and bioinformatics next year.