The Definition of Bioinformatics

Whenever someone asks what do I do, my reply is that "I am a scientist and do research in bioinformatics". In cases when I get a return question "what is that?" my answer usually is "that means that I do biology using computers." and the uninitiated will usually be satisfied with this simple explanation.

A more elaborate version starts with scientists Paulien Hogeweg and Ben Hesper who first used the term bioinformatics and also proposed the first definition of bioinformatics in 1970 and defined it as “the study of informatic processes in biotic systems."(*) Between then and today, many experts have proposed several not so slightly varying definitions. A few examples are:

(i) In Merriam-Webster dictionary as "the collection, classification, storage, and analysis of biochemical and biological information using computers especially as applied to molecular genetics and genomics."(*)

(ii) In Dictionary.com as "the retrieval and analysis of biochemical and biological data using mathematics and computer science, as in the study of genomes."(*)

(iii) In Nature.com as "Computational biology and bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field that develops and applies computational methods to analyse large collections of biological data, such as genetic sequences, cell populations or protein samples, to make new predictions or discover new biology. The computational methods used include analytical methods, mathematical modelling and simulation."(*)

(iv) By Nicholas Luscombe, Greenbaum D, and Gerstein M. in their 2001 paper as "Bioinformatics is conceptualizing biology in terms of macromolecules (in the sense of physical-chemistry) and then applying 'informatics' techniques (derived from disciplines such as applied maths, computer science, and statistics) to understand and organize the information associated with these molecules, on a large-scale."

By examination of all the above and other definitions, it is evident that no universally agreed upon definition exists. Perhaps one well-approved definition is in the Oxford English Dictionary, authored by Paulien Hogeweg who first defined bioinformatics. It states bioinformatics as “the branch of science concerned with information and information flow in biological systems, esp. the use of computational methods in genetics and genomics.” He wrote this around 2002.

In the 2011 paper, Hogeweg argued that the original term from the year 1970 is re-emerging.