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Computers help the fight against Alzheimers

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A 70-meter long list of proteins may not seem like a major step in the battle against genetic diseases, but for life scientists it's a milestone.

This content was published on September 25, 2008 - 15:04

Members of the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (SIB) unfurled a roll containing the descriptions of all 20,325 known human proteins outside Bern cathedral on Wednesday, to mark the SIB's tenth anniversary.

"Bioinformatics has revolutionised life sciences in the past ten years," SIB head Ron Appel told swissinfo.

"The publication of research results or databases in the internet is becoming more and more important, because our knowledge is developing so quickly," he explained.

"By the time a book can be produced, the knowledge it contains may already be out of date."

The studies supported by the SIB have contributed to fundamental research in the natural sciences as well as such things as the fight against specific genetic diseases.

International research

The SIB makes databases and software tools available to the international research community. Scientists can search and analyse information in the globally accessible archive, and use the software tools to compare and explore data.

Anyone with access to the internet can download the results of the SIB's studies without paying a cent.

The SIB, working in the area where biology, medicine and information sciences meet, has 300 scientists in 25 research groups, who work closely together with Switzerland's two Federal Institutes of Technology and its universities.

Proteins

The Swiss-Prot Group is one of these research groups, dedicated to discovering the secrets of proteins. Proteins are small building blocks making up all living organisms. Within our cells, they are responsible for the work of building, transporting, controlling or destroying.

If proteins don't function as they should, this can lead to illness and death. Our knowledge of proteins like insulin and haemoglobin is decisive when it comes to treating diseases and conditions like cancer, Alzheimers and haemophilia.

Amos Bairoch, head of the Swiss-Prot group, uses a telling image: "If human DNA is the script of life, proteins are the actors."

The aim of the research group is to build up as comprehensive a fund of knowledge about proteins as possible. There are more than 150 biologists and computer experts working worldwide to keep this compendium of knowledge up to date. Of these, 80 are with the SIB.

The Swiss-Prot staff unfolded their list of proteins to demonstrate just how much information this means.

"The sequencing of the human genome created a dictionary," said Bairoch. "Now, by looking at the way life is organised in our bodies at a molecular level, this new encyclopedia has taken things an important step further."

This is helping to smooth the way to understanding life at molecular level, but there is a long way still to go, he commented.

swissinfo, based on an article in German by Susanne Schanda

Biomatics

Biomatics is a new discipline which combines life sciences, informatics, mathematics and information technology.

It developed in the wake of advances in molecular biology and genomic technology, which required huge computational ability.

The aim of biomatics is to help discover new biological concepts and offer a new perspective from which biological principles can be detected.

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The SIB

The SIB was established in 1998 by a group of five bioinformatics specialists.

It is financed mainly by the Swiss government and the Swiss National Science Foundation, but also receives support from the European Union, the National Institutes of Health in the USA and the industry.

It has an annual budget of SFr18 million.

The SIB has its own staff members, and also works with scientists from its partner universities.

Its tasks include research, teaching and the development of data bases.

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