On the intersection of artificial intelligence and bioinformatics

By Ron Vatalaro
08:09 AM

The field of health informatics has roots dating back to the 1960s when researchers realized how useful computer programs could be in storing and managing large amounts of data.

Today’s increasingly intelligent computer programs, meanwhile, have broadened the scope of study, fostering highly complex research while providing tools researchers can use to help them store, manipulate study and analyze data.

Let’s take a look at the current landscape, wherein AI and bioinformatics are moving closer to each other — just not without some challenges

Gazing back

Bioinformatics is a specialty branch of the health informatics field. It emerged as its own unique path in the 1970s following Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen’s DNA cloning.

By 1977 a method for sequencing DNA was discovered and bioinformatics began to come into its own. The Smith-Waterman algorithm for sequence alignment was published in 1981 and in that same year an impressive 579 human genes were fully mapped using the principles of bioinformatics.

Artificial intelligence involves the use of complex computer algorithms that are capable of not only storing and sorting data, but also helping with analysis and extrapolation.

The applications for AI in bioinformatics are extensive. Researchers are using AI applications for purposes such as:

  • Classifying biological sequences
  • Clustering biological entities
  • Selecting features

Top obstacles

Though the use of AI to assist with bioinformatics research offers much potential, researchers say they are facing certain some issues.

Those include:

  • The vast amount of data being produced in biology and bioinformatics is rapidly outpacing methods for data analysis.
  • Data interpretation and hypotheses generation requires more intelligence than is currently available with standard AI tools.
  • Blending the two fields requires collaboration of people with expertise in a diversity of fields, including biology, bioinformatics, AI and computer science.

Ethical questions

As bioinformatics advances, ethical questions arise. Though stored genetic code data can prove extremely useful for research, that data may represent real people in the population.

This data is unique to the people it represents and some argue that safeguarding it is critical. Theft of genetic information, they point out, goes beyond the level of identity theft involved in swiping credit card numbers from a database. With that in mind, the ethics of bioinformatics is emerging as an issue that’s capturing attention in the field and among the general public. This is especially so since bioinformatics techniques are proving incredibly valuable in advancing medical science. For example, research in this area is helping with the development of tailor-made drugs that can focus on specific individuals or types of individuals.

The future

Bioinformatics continues as a distinct specialty of the health informatics field. In recent years, bioinformatics has proven crucial for support of genetics and genomics research. It’s also being used in cancer research, neurological research and clinical settings.

While data continues to be developed at breakneck speed, researchers say there is a need for better tools to help them manipulate, study and analyze it. Many are calling for greater collaboration between researchers and those that can provide informatics support to work in a more synergistic fashion to develop databases and other tools to store data and support iterative modeling processes, among others.

As bioinformatics and artificial intelligence applications advance, the future of both fields remains bright. What path they will take next in unlocking the mysteries of the body is unknown, but it is clear that researchers believe collaboration in both arenas is crucial for future advancement.

Ron Vatalaro works with the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine and writes about health informatics. Ron holds an advanced degree in Business Administration with a concentration in technology.

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