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Byte-Savvy Biologists

Posted on 01 October 2008

The Human Genome Project has unraveled one of life’s greatest secrets–the sequence of some three billion pieces of DNA that govern everything from hair color to cancer susceptibility. This “blueprint,” now in the hands of researchers all over the world, signaled the culmination of years of scientific endeavor. More importantly, however, it marked the beginning of a new age of genetic discovery and an expanding field of career opportunities in life sciences and computing. “In biology, unlike chemistry or physics, everything we need to know is ahead of us,” says Dr. Fran Lewitter, director of biocomputing at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, MA.

Even with the human genome map in hand, researchers must conduct genetic studies and clinical trials to uncover how genes interact, and find better and more targeted ways to fight disease. These studies generate a vast amount of data, and according to Lewitter, the hottest job trends in this burgeoning era of genetic discovery are those that help researchers handle the data explosion.

Gene Crunchers in Demand
If you love biology, but would rather tinker with a computer mouse than a cell culture, bioinformatics might be in your future. Generally speaking, bioinformatics is the marriage of computer sciences and life sciences. More specifically, it involves taking hundreds of billions of bits of genetic information dredged up by the biotechnology industry and academic researchers, and using computers to sort it into useful information. An average genetics lab, for instance, will produce 100 terabytes of information a year, the equivalent of one million encyclopedias. But few biologists have the expertise necessary to tap this flood of data.

“One of the biggest demands today is experts who understand both biology and computing, and can interpret the vast amount of data that genetic studies generate,” says Lewitter. “For instance, skills like database design are needed to help find ways to keep track of it and make sure the information is easily accessible when needed.”

Data mining has become especially important recently, she says, now that most academic labs are keeping their own databases locally, and complicated experiments, involving not one but thousands of genetic sequences at once, are becoming commonplace.

Industry also faces an urgency to develop systems that help access and analyze genetic data in a uniform way, said George Fields, manager of human resources at NetGenics, a bioinformatics company based in Cleveland. His firm hires software engineers with a healthy dose of biology or chemistry know-how, or individuals with an advanced biology degree who also know their way around Java and C++.

A Ray of Light
Alongside the deluge of DNA sequence data, new DNA arrays–also called biochips–are helping researchers uncover the function of genes.

Like a PC chip designed to crunch millions of numbers in a split second, a biochip crunches millions of biological reactions in a spilt second. The reaction tells researchers which genes are turned “on” in a tissue sample and allows them to create expression profiles to eventually elucidate what a given gene or set of genes does in the body.

Lewitter says biochip data is valuable, so much so that these chips are among the most important tools in biotech research today. And so are professionals who can design biochip experiments and analyze the resulting data.

Seeing Is Believing
Visualization is another opportunity emerging from the need to analyze the genetic data explosion.

According to Fields, private and public researchers alike use programs that read large biological datasets–such as expression profiles or genetic sequences–and create complex visual reports. And they require individuals to manipulate the reports to find correlations, anomalies and trends within the data that warrant further investigation.

Pharmaceutical companies use such software and personnel to visually sift through large libraries of chemical compounds in order to find those that would make suitable drug candidates.

Mapping the human genome is one of the most important scientific events of our time. Yet, the value of genetic data is not just in the genes themselves, but in using the information to understand how the body functions–and that’s where the hard work begins.

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1 Comments For This Post

  1. steppen wolf says:

    You’re on the Molecular and Cell Biology Carnival — here: http://skeptalchemist.blogspot.com/2008/11/molecular-and-cell-biology-carnival-4.html

    Thank you for your article, and make sure you link back!

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