Both computational biology and bioinformatics draw upon many of the same disciplines to derive distinct, but related, information about biological processes. Understanding the functioning of living systems is the realm of the physiologist. Bioengineers working in computational biology might explore, for example, how blood flows through the body or how air flows through the lungs. This “plumbing” can be mathematically modeled to help determine the health of an individual patient.
Computational biology helps scientists to understand how biological processes work at the macro level. By using computer models, various hypotheses are tested to understand how tissues, organs and, indeed, whole ecosystems function.
Imagine we arrive from another planet and come across an automobile. We want to know how it works but the hood is locked. By stepping on the gas and making various other external measurements, we can come up with a theory as to what is going on under the hood. A similar approach is used in computational biology to derive an understanding of biological processes, the results of which can also help to eliminate the need to “look under the hood,” reducing exploratory surgeries.
How does the retina encode light to create visual perception, for example? By better understanding how specific biological pathways work, bioengineers are working to design a better retinal stimulator to restore vision.
Within the larger field of computational biology, bioinformatics, also known as “computational molecular biology,” focuses on the exploration of biological processes at the molecular level. Sophisticated algorithms are developed to study genes (genomics), gene expression (transcriptomics), proteins (proteomics), lipids (lipidomics), metabolites (metabolomics) and other cell-bound molecules. Dynamic molecular and cellular processes are revealed by mapping, visualizing and recognizing patterns in sequences and expression of DNA and proteins; analyzing protein structures; modeling molecular pathways; and so forth.
In order to provide a comprehensive look at interrelated cellular activities, both in normal and various disease states, biomedical engineers need to be able to mine and integrate different types of data, such as amino acid sequences and protein structures.
The increasing need to manage and interpret the large volume of data and information gleaned from these activities has increased research efforts in the areas of databases, computational techniques and tools, and complex human-computer interfaces that allow users to archive and retrieve data.
While bioinformatics allows for the exploration of physiology at the micro level, there is still much to understand at the macro level. The Physiome Project represents an international effort to better understand physiology using a computational framework that crosses multiple spatial and temporal scales.
Bioinformatics and computational biology are not to be confused with health informatics, which focuses on the mining of patient data for clinical applications.
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