Bio-informatics Is Happening

Updated: Apr 5 2002, 05:30am hrs
Computing and information technology are more commonly used terms in the United States, while the term informatics is more widely used in Europe. Bio-informatics refers to the use of computing/informatics in biology. Biology as an area is hot, with some people predicting biotechnology to be the next wave after information technology. Of course, biotechnology includes bio-materials, bio-processing, genetic engineering, bio-agriculture, cloning and many others.

There are some distinct problems that use computing intensely to solve some of the interesting problems of biology this interface area is what is generally referred to as bio-informatics. Generally this includes application of high-end computing power (modelling, visualisation, database search, large data storage) for molecular modelling, gene synthesis (part of the famous human genome project), drug discovery, simulation, new material synthesis and other related areas.

Right now the field that is driving bio-informatics is the drug discovery process that includes the techniques of data mining, scientific visualisation, information storage and retrieval of special structure data and simulation of very long DNA sequences. The pharmaceuticals industry and the health food industry are pumping in billions of dollars. Companies such as Biocon in Bangalore, Dr Reddys Lab in Hyderabad, and Ranbaxy in Delhi are excellent examples in the Indian context. Venture capitalists are funding significant doses of money. Strand Genomics founded by Professors Vijay Chandru and Ramesh Hariharan at the Indian Institute of Science is another example of venture capital funding bio-informatics start-ups. Obviously lots of things are happening in this area.

What is the core competence you need before you can enter this area Is it the right bandwagon to jump on to for an information technology professional Are information technology companies likely to enter this area Would infotech companies be more successful or biotechnology companies be more successful in this area While there are no concrete answers to all these questions, let me outline the evolving scene.

Bio-informatics, like every other inter-disciplinary area, will see visionaries who have an uncanny knack of combining the biological and computing disciplines. In that sense, success would belong to those who cross the borders well without losing their core; their base could be either of the disciplines. But, deep knowledge of both the fields will be necessary before any significant success is possible. Shallow one-course exposure or street corner shops offering courses to all and sundry would not prepare you for a career in bio-informatics.

Also, this emerging field ultimately would be dictated by domain competency. There is a window of opportunity for information technology professionals when biotechnology professionals would need infotech professionals to make them comfortable in using the power of computing particularly in graphics, data mining, large-scale storage, special data structures, unusual pattern matching algorithms etc.

Once a generation of biotechnology professionals master these techniques, bio-informatics would be driven and dominated by biotech professionals. Of course, for those of you in information technology, the window is open now; it will be so for the next five years or so, but will close eventually. For those with a biology background, bio-informatics could be a gold mine if you can manage to master computing skills; once again deep computing skills.

Biotechnology companies such as Biocon, Astra Zeneca, Dr Reddys Labs are all investing in bio-informatics. Information technology companies such as Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services, and Satyam are starting (or planning to start) activities in this emerging area. World-wide there is interest at many levels consulting companies such as McKinsey, market research companies, hardware and software companies (Compaq, IBM, Microsoft), universities, research labs and venture capitalists.

The promise is definitely there but do not expect bio-informatics to be as huge as the information technology industry. It is a small part of biotechnology, which itself will be smaller than the global information technology industry today. So the opportunities are plenty but not bountiful; thanks to the reality check after the dot.com meltdown combined with the 9/11 disaster, people are cautious enough that no bio-informatics bubble is likely to emerge overnight.

Professor S Sadagopan is the Director of the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore. The views expressed here are personal. He can be contacted at ss@iiitb.ac.in