Friday, December 31, 2004

New course in bioinformatics

The University of Manchester has put up a free, web-based bioinformatics course. It even has an introductory "quiz" asking questions related to the course material (I personally scored 50%, which I consider to be quite an achievment; some questions are very tough / obscure). Of course, bioinformatics is a very large field, covering very differents topics (microarrays, sequence analysis, structure prediction, databases, etc), and EMBER doesn't cover all these topics. I recommend it to anyone interested in bioinformatics, even if its just to check what the field is about.


From IST results (press release) : Bioinformatics is a relatively new scientific discipline concerning the use of computers in biological research, especially gene sequencing. The EMBER project has developed learning resources to support training in this important new field.

Although there are trained biologists and computer scientists, there are very few computer-literate biologists or biology-literate computer scientists which are needed for this cross-disciplinary field. The shortage of trained bioinformatics professionals has been paralleled by a shortage of suitable training courses.

"The term bioinformatics was coined to describe the sequence information that was emerging from the new genome projects," says Professor Terri Attwood of University of Manchester and coordinator of the IST project EMBER. "It covered things like protein sequence analysis, DNA sequence analysis and protein structure analysis. The seed partners in EMBER were University of Manchester (UK) and The Netherlands-based Expert Centre for Taxonomic Identification (ETI). ETI were the technical developers of the learning resources."

The University of Manchester has been running a M.Sc. in Bioinformatics since 1999. It includes a set of practical activities in a package called BioActivity, which had been made freely available and used in training courses worldwide. Maintaining such a course is surprisingly time consuming, with updates, revisions, hyperlink checking, and so on. EMBER was set up to convert BioActivity into a commercial product that could be maintained by technical publishers.

There are three components to EMBER: a more up-to-date and professionally produced website; a stand-alone version of the materials on CD-ROM, and a book that accompanies the course. The course is publicly available on the project website, and a simple password system is used to keep track of who is using it. "This enables course coordinators to manage presentations of the course and student cohorts, and enables students to login to the correct version of the course," adds Attwood.

"We have between 20-40 students taking the M.Sc. in bioinformatics every year," comments Attwood. "Although it's difficult to give precise figures for the numbers of students in other institutions, we know that EMBER is being used in Finland, Switzerland, Portugal, Belgium to name just a few. The University of Manchester is in discussion with two of the project partners with a view to extend the collaboration beyond the end of the project. I expect that take-up will be good."



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