DR AMANDA CLARE COLUMNIST; Dr Amanda Clare Is a Lecturer at Aberystwyth University Who Uses Computer Science to Solve Problems in Biology

Article excerpt


BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH, the star of the upcoming film The Imitation Game, will soon dramatise Alan Turing's brilliant expertise in code breaking during World War II, and artificial intelligence after the war.

Just before he died, Turing was trying to understand how and why plants and animals form patterns - spots, stripes and spirals. Patterns are common in nature, in the colouring of animals, in plant seed heads and in the placement of their leaves and petals. Turing was trying to do this with the aid of mathematics and his new computer.

He was probably the first person we could call a "bioinformatician".

I studied computer science at university. I first heard about "genomes" in 1998, when the race to sequence the human genome became headline news.

We had the technology to discover the sequence of our own DNA. The commercial company Celera was competing against worldwide government-funded institutions, including the UK's Sanger Centre, to produce the first draft sequence.

In 2001 they jointly published their results, and from then on, the DNA sequence that makes us human has been available to the public to browse and inspect.

I was already excited long before the publication and in 1999 I gave up my computing job to start a bioinformatics PhD so that I could find out more.

Bioinformatics is the application of computing to help understand the data produced in biology. As a bioinformatician, I calculate results from DNA sequences, but I also want to know how this corresponds to many other measurements, such as the height and flowering time of plants, the speed of growth of yeast cells, the types of flowers that have been visited by a bee population and the diversity in the populations of bacteria living in the stomachs of cows which have been fed different diets. …