March 3, 2017

What is bioinformatics for?

Part of my job at Eagle is to scout for new customers, which often entails contacting people to enquire about their current bioinformatics activities then discussing any areas they have identified in which they might need assistance. This week I got a rather unusual response to one of my enquiries. The company in question (who shall remain anonymous, naturally) had heard of the word bioinformatics but didn't really know what it was, let alone what it could be used for within their field of research, but instead they asked me to explain the concept to them and how it might be applied to help them reach their business goals.

I have to say that this is the first time I had been asked to explain the concept of bioinformatics to scientists at a large corporation. Typically I find myself talking to bioinformaticians or geneticists who know very well what I'm talking about, and the discussion tends towards understanding the gaps in their current service provision. These people know what they can use the tools for, they understand how they can be applied to the research carried out by their colleagues, and they know how good bioinformatics can be used to improve productivity and profitability in a commercial environment.

To have to explain all this from scratch posed an interesting challenge. (Blogging about it without giving away any of the details or hinting at their field of research is even more of a challenge, but I digress...). We bioinformaticians just assume that its obvious that people know what we're talking about, why they'd want to use our tools, what they'll achieve by doing so. But there is obviously a sizeable segment of the biology research community out there who are unaware of the improvements that computational biology techniques can bring to their wet lab protocols.

Whose job is it to educate them? Clearly it is in the commercial best interests of a service provider like Eagle that everyone should be aware of how great bioinformatics is and how much it can help them improve their research, and we're happy to answer questions when asked. But, shouldn't biologists in general already be aware of these tools - even if they don't use them or don't believe in their efficacy - and if they are not aware, from where should they be learning about this? Where _do_ biologists go to learn about new techniques, in any case? I had always assumed that simple regular attendance at relevant conferences would soon expose everyone to the great advances in computational biology, but it seems that this may not be the case.

Of course I may be over-generalising here. Many R&D companies in the purely commercial field, particularly those not operating in human health, have no biologists on staff at all - their scientific research is all focused on the chemistry or physical properties of their target organisms instead, in which case the lack of knowledge about bioinformatics is perfectly understandable. But in that case it must now be the job of R&D managers worldwide, in all fields that interact with biological material, to make it a priority to learn about how genetics, genomics, and bioinformatics can give them so much more insight into the organisms they are working with than ever before possible, and that the ever-decreasing cost of sequencing means that this type of in-depth research is no longer going to cost an arm and a leg to implement. Getting that message across succinctly, and accurately, is certainly going to be a major task!

Topics: Bioinformatics