What is Bioinformatics?

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Have you ever heard of bioinformatics? In short, it's a branch of biology that uses computer science, statistics, math, and engineering to understand biological processes. Read this lesson to learn more.


As technology advances, the field of bioinformatics continues to advance at a rapid pace. While all subsections of biology benefit from these advances, the biggest breakthroughs have occurred in genetics and genome mapping. Have you heard of the Human Genome Project? This project aims to map the human genome and is a prime example of what can be done using bioinformatics.

Bioinformatics itself is a discipline that draws on concepts and methods from many other disciplines. Using methods from computer science, statistics, mathematics, and engineering, scientists can take huge data sets and actually make sense of them - no small feat before the advancement of computers and their processing capabilities! Computers can now gather, compile, manipulate, and analyze large chunks of biological data, and this provides an approach for tackling large-scale biological questions and problems. In fact, bioinformatics borrows techniques and theories from systems biology, biochemistry, microbiology, physics, biostatistics, and many more disciplines - the possibilities are practically endless!

Bioinformatics allows scientists to develop data maps of complex interactions, such as this network.

Examples of Bioinformatics in Action

As previously mentioned, the Human Genome Project is one example of how bioinformatics can be applied to a large-scale biological question. The human genome has more than three billion base pairs, making the task of mapping it almost impossible. Nevertheless, the results from this project have identified patterns in disease development, which, in turn, has rapidly advanced the field of pharmaceutical drug development to help treat different diseases.

Having the capability to look at genetic details down to the amino acid level allows for a thorough investigation into what makes humans 'tick' the way they do. The better understanding we have about how we work, the more targeted treatments we can develop to help those of us who don't work properly on a cellular level. As an example, bioinformatics is used to study how cancer cells mutate. Cancer continues to be a disease that eludes modern science, though our understanding of how cancer cells function and evolve is improving thanks to this interdisciplinary approach.

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