Bioinformatics as a Hobby

Bioinformatics is the study of data generated from biological experiments. With the advent of high-throughput sequencing and many other rapidly improving technologies Biologists are often producing far more data than they can properly analyze. With data being so easy to produce we have massive amounts of data, much of it publicly available – which could hold the keys to new medicines, cures, of breakthroughs. This data just needs someone to look through it. Using data mining software bioinformaticians look though data to find interesting patterns or to find answers to questions. But just like DIY Biology, bioinformatics isn’t restricted to professionals. Given that all you need to do bioinformatics is a computer and some spare time, anyone can do it.

David Smith has written an excellent article on this topic for COSMOS magazine which I highly recommend.

Across the world, hobby geneticists are exploring the huge number of DNA sequences that are freely and publicly available on the Internet at websites like GenBank, which is supported by U.S. National Institute of Health, and EMBL-Bank, which is funded by various European member states. These online genetic storehouses have everything from the human genome to the smallpox genome, as well as wooly mammoth and Neanderthal DNA sequences. They are easy to navigate, containing user-friendly interfaces and simple search menus. A search of GenBank using the keyword “dog” recovers more than 200,000 thousand entries, including complete genomes of the North American coyote, gray wolf, and domestic dog. These genomes can be downloaded in minutes by anyone with a computer and an Internet connection.

DIY Bioinformatics has some similarities and some differences with DIY Biology. In one sense it is easier and more accessible than DIY Biology, being accessible by anyone with a computer. No labs, chemicals, or anything else required. On the other hand – bioinformatics can  in many ways be a more daunting are to jump in on. Experience with computer programming and command line interface programs is basically a prerequisite at the moment, and if you don’t have those skills it will be a tough learning curve to traverse.

Sadly most of the easiest to use (and graphical user interface laden) software is extremely expensive – being marketed exclusively to scientists whose grant money pays for it (and thus for the cost of development). Thankfully there is a lot of bioinformatic freeware out there which is just as good – although often harder to use.

Personally I can see huge potential in crowd sourcing bioinformatic analysis to interested citizen scientists. I think the biggest hurdle however is that difficulty factor . If we can make easier to understand and follow bioinformatics tools for beginners then we can hook into an entirely new workforce, simultaneously educating and involving the public in work that can really make a difference!

Posted on in Biology 3 Comments