A Blurb on Bioinformatics: Why We Geneticists Need Computers

I was going to write a longer post for this week, but due the three finals I’ve had in the past two days and the one I have coming up on Monday, I found myself scrambling to put a post together. I may tackle the Human Genome Project (today’s intended topic) another time, when it’s not finals week. Today, I will offer one of my favorite scientific rants: bioinformatics.

Or, why geneticists should learn computer programming. (Image not mine)

The above image shows you a schematic (technically called a “space-filling model”) of DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, one of my favorite molecules and one of the most awesome things in the universe. (But I digress. . . .) Here is a simpler picture of DNA for you.

(Image not mine)



This image clearly shows the iconic DNA double helix, along with something very important: base pairing. As you may have heard in high school biology class, DNA’s information is encoded in the “base pairs,” pairs of nucleotide bases (adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine) that hydrogen-bond with each other. (Don’t worry about what a hydrogen bond is. It doesn’t really matter unless you’re a biochemist. What matters is that the bases pair.) Adenine (A), as you can see in the image, only pairs with thymine (T), and guanine (G) only with cytosine (C). This is responsible for a lot of important properties of DNA, such as coding for proteins and RNAs, which I won’t go into here. This is why knowing the “sequence” of bases along the DNA in a chromosome, or in an entire genome (all the genetic material in an organism), is useful.

Here is an illustration of chromosomes for you. (Image not mine)

The problem with that? Any given organism (even a bacterium!) has a lot of DNA.

Take humans, for example. Almost any given cell in your body (except red blood cells, which have no nuclei) has a copy of your entire genome, coiled up into 46 chromosomes, two copies each of 23 unique chromosomes (except the X and Y chromosomes, which are not copies of each other, per se). All together, those little chromosomes contain about 2 meters (5-6 feet) of DNA. Think about it: if stretched out, your DNA would be about as long as you are tall. That’s in each cell, folks.

It staggers the mind. Which is why we need computers.

This is where we get “bioinformatics”: using computers to study life. (Image not mine)

Genomics (the study of whole genomes) is having a revolution right now. And this field of study relies on computers, so guess what? Bioinformatics is big. Programming classes are offered for bioscience majors, and bioinformatics options for computer science majors. Though I’m not a genomics student, I will probably take a bioinformatics programming course later in my college career, because that’s where the field is going. And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. My genetics rant for the day. I hope you enjoyed it.

(Image not mine)

Have you ever heard of bioinformatics? Do you like DNA as much as I do? (I know, I know, I’m a nerd. . . .) How about computers? (I don’t like them very much, but it’s great if you do. The world needs more computer people.) Share in the comments!


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