As written for Cabarrus Magazine.
Bioinformatics plays a critical role in scientific findings involving disease prevention and treatment, the creation of healthy food products and new varieties of fruits and vegetables. But you may be asking, “Bio what?”
“That’s the first question I always get,” remarked Cory Brouwer, PhD, director of the UNC Charlotte Bioinformatics Services Division at the NC Research Campus (NCRC). “My answer is that bioinformatics is the use of computation to answer biological questions. Today, most biological studies produce vast quantities of data and multiple types of data. You can’t analyze them on a desk top computer. It takes expertise in bioinformatics.”
“Science isn’t just beakers and microscopes,” added Garron Wright, MS, bioinformatics project leader at the NCRC’s David H. Murdock Research Institute (DHMRI). “Those are tools people still use, but we’re taking computational tools to delve into raw data to find the trends, to do modeling and to do intensive analysis.”
Wright’s team works on projects as varied as environmentally-based cancers, hypertension and the long-term effect of high fat diets on human genetics. Since both DHMRI and UNCC are in the NCRC’s core laboratory building, they collaborate frequently. In fact, Brouwer’s group works with every campus research center on projects spanning nutrition and exercise, nutritional links to obesity and diabetes and the effect of diet on cancer.
“Mapping the blueberry genome is another project we are involved in with NC State and our training and education program, the Plant Pathways Elucidation Project,” Brouwer said. “Most recently, we’ve been mapping pathways that are important for providing the nutrient qualities that we all want in blueberries.”
With so much data flowing, storage is necessary. Now that DataChambers’ 50,000-square-foot data center is open on campus storage capacity at the NCRC is greatly expanded. DataChambers is a North State Communications company that specializes in information technology services.
“Lots and lots of data is created at this campus,” commented Nicholas Kottyan, president and CEO of DataChambers. “They need a place to store that data. We offer the perfect opportunity with a secure center, and fiber optic connectivity between our building and the other buildings on campus.”
As a field, bioinformatics is still evolving. Brouwer points to the emerging field of individualized nutrition as an example. “Every one of us has slightly different nutritional needs based upon our genome,” he said. “We are developing the tools on this campus to address some of those needs, and get to the point where we can tell you that it would be good if you ate a little more broccoli than someone else because of its nutritional qualities and your genome.”
Wright is working with scientists at DHMRI to improve bioinformatic approaches to metabolomics and proteomics, both fields are crucial to finding new ways to prevent and treat diseases.
“No matter the field bioinformatics is applied to,” Wright said, “We’re using computer science to more efficiently analyze data that, in many cases, is impossible to manage any other way.”