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Bioinformatics is essentially the application of information science to biology. It involves the storage, interpretation and application of structured biological information (e.g. from genomes) using the theory and tools of mathematics and computing. The project most associated with bioinformatics was the Human Genome Project, which sequenced all twenty-four human chromosomes.

The main areas of work are:

  • Sequence assembly – putting the pieces together in the right order.
  • Database design & maintenance – maintaining databanks of gene sequences, constantly updating (companies often maintain their own private databases).
  • Sequence (gene) analysis – understanding the function of a gene, what bits do what; may be done by comparing against known genes; carried out using powerful computers and specialised software.
  • Proteomics – studies the portion of the genome expressed in particular cells using cutting edge technology. Bioinformatics specialists work closely with bench scientists to do this “data-mining”.
  • Pharmacogenomics – how single point mutations or alterations in the genome at specific positions can be associated with particular disease states and with reduced/increased sensitivity to particular drugs. Bioinformaticians are at forefront in collecting these into databases for analysis and application of this data.

Getting in

Entrants to the profession typically have either a computing or life science background. Some universities, including Manchester, offer specialist Master’s degrees (MSc and also MRes at some institutions). Entrance to these courses typically requires a good undergraduate degree in either a biological or computer science.

There is increasing demand for life scientists with high level computing skills e.g. PhD biologists who developed their own computational tools for their research. Employers often look for knowledge of programming languages (e.g. Java, Perl, HTML and C++), as well as databases (SQL, Oracle) and operating systems such as UNIX.

Further information

Technology used in human health can be explored via: