by Leigh MacMillan
planning grant, shared efforts move research forward
If you ask ten different scientists, what is bioinformatics?,
you will likely hear ten different responses. There will be common
elements computers and databases top the list but
the definition will depend on whos doing the defining. Nancy
Lorenzi, assistant vice chancellor for Health Affairs, sums it up
nicely. Bioinformatics is like an amoeba, she says.
It comes in various shapes and sizes.
At Vanderbilt Medical Center, advancing bioinformatics is a
very distributed effort, says Mark Magnuson, assistant vice
chancellor for Research. Bioinformatics is probably involved
in one way or another in seven or more of our shared resources,
and individual laboratories are making use of these tools as well.
Magnuson has spearheaded an effort to bring different investigators
together over lunch, to stimulate discussion and development of
new bioinformatics resources. Although the definition of bioinformatics
may be vague, he says, there is momentum at Vanderbilt for improving
and expanding efforts in the bioinformatics arena.
So what is bioinformatics?
According to the National Institutes of Health, bioinformatics
is research, development, or application of computational
tools and approaches for expanding the use of biological, medical,
behavioral or health data, including those to acquire, store, organize,
archive, analyze, or visualize such data.
The term bioinformatics is not very specific to any one effort,
says Al George, director of Genetic Medicine. Bioinformatics
is a toolbox that can be configured to perform a wide variety of
research needs; it is not one flavor.
Mary Edgerton, director of the Molecular Profiling and Data Mining
Shared Resource, sees bioinformatics as a spectrum that goes
from storage and retrieval of massive amounts of information to
techniques used to interpret that information. In her view,
bioinformatics is a large field with many subspecialties, including
biomedical informatics and computational biology.
Others, including the NIH, define these disciplines as distinct
entities, recognizing that there is significant overlap and activity
at their interfaces.
Lorenzi explains that biomedical informatics usually refers to
clinical or medical informatics the application of computing
to patient-related data, while the term bioinformatics more often
implies the computing tools that handle the research information
of the genomic era.
Vanderbilt is particularly strong in the realm of biomedical informatics.
The department of Biomedical Informatics and its faculty members,
including chair Randy Miller and Bill Stead, are internationally
recognized for initiatives like StarChart and WizOrder. Bioinformatics
for basic science areas of research has been slower to develop at
Vanderbilt, but thanks to the efforts of many investigators, it
is gaining ground.
A newly awarded pre-Center grant to develop a National Program
of Excellence in Biomedical Computing will allow Vanderbilt to build
on existing efforts to establish the organizational and infrastructure
components needed for a full-fledged Center.
This issue of Peer Review takes a look at some of the areas
at VUMC where bioinformatics plays a key role. Shared resources
like the microarray, proteomics, structural biology, and imaging
resources rely heavily on bioinformatics tools and are developing
some of their own. The bioinformatics cores of the Program in Human
Genetics and VICC are writing code and developing databases to store,
retrieve and analyze information. Investigators in the department
of Biomedical Informatics are writing new algorithms to find relationships
among the elements of huge genomic datasets. And ongoing efforts
seek to recruit new faculty members with bioinformatics expertise
and to expand and improve computing resources such as the VAMPIRE
The stories in this issue do not present an exhaustive review of
bioinformatics at the Medical Center. They are intended to highlight
some of the advances, to provide a glimpse into the changing shape
and movement of the amoeba that is bioinformatics.