Bioin­for­mat­ics re­search set to im­prove use of com­put­ers

Chronicle (Zimbabwe) - - Feature/worldwide - Sife­lani Tsiko

Zim­babwe hosted its in­au­gu­ral bioin­for­mat­ics re­search sym­po­sium in the cap­i­tal re­cently to pro­mote the wider use of com­put­ers to speed­ily process vast amounts of sci­en­tific data crit­i­cal in find­ing solutions to some of the coun­try’s most press­ing prob­lems.

The Na­tional Biotech­nol­ogy Au­thor­ity (NBA) in part­ner­ship with Chin­hoyi Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, Harare In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy and the Univer­sity of Mau­ri­tius (SANBio Bioin­for­mat­ics Node) or­gan­ised the bioin­for­mat­ics re­search sym­po­sium to in­crease aware­ness on the ap­pli­ca­tions across the coun­try’s re­search in­sti­tu­tions.

NBA head, Dr Jonathan Mu­fan­daedza, said the pro­mo­tion of bio-in­for­mat­ics will help drive eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment as re­searchers utilise tools that can speed up the adop­tion of in­no­va­tive tech­niques to im­prove the qual­ity of life for peo­ple in the coun­try.

“This is for the first time that the coun­try is host­ing such an event,” he said. “Bioin­for­mat­ics has a huge po­ten­tial to im­prove crop and an­i­mal agri­cul­ture, en­vi­ron­ment, in­dus­try, trade and a num­ber of sec­tors.

“We are hold­ing this sym­po­sium to stim­u­late an in­ter­est in bioin­for­mat­ics and el­e­vate the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of its ap­pli­ca­tions in all bi­o­log­i­cal re­search.”

Ex­perts say bioin­for­mat­ics is use of com­put­ers and IT soft­ware to store, re­trieve, process, man­age and study bi­o­log­i­cal data.

It’s a field, which they say is in­her­ently in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary and com­bines bi­ol­ogy with dif­fer­ent ap­proaches from computer sci­ence, math­e­mat­ics, bi­ol­ogy and other as­pects.

The world has ben­e­fited from im­proved prod­ucts and ser­vices pro­duced through use of bioin­for­mat­ics.

Ex­am­ples in­clude new drugs, new crop and an­i­mal breeds, iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of crime sus­pects, de­vel­op­ing of reg­is­ters for an­i­mals and hu­mans.

Said Chin­hoyi Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy molec­u­lar bi­ol­o­gist Dr Wal­ter Sanyika: “The aim of this dis­ci­pline is to tackle bi­o­log­i­cal prob­lems by means of data anal­y­sis and mod­el­ling. These bi­o­log­i­cal prob­lems arise at all scales of life — at the genome level, at the pro­tein level, at the cel­lu­lar level, or at the level of a com­plete or­gan­ism, like plants, or mam­mals.

“It is very cru­cial in help­ing sci­en­tists to gen­er­ate knowl­edge that helps us un­der­stand life. It in­volves stor­age, re­trieval, pro­cess­ing and ar­chiv­ing of data that would other­wise take many years to process man­u­ally us­ing our hu­man minds.”

He says through the use of high per­for­mance com­put­ers, vast amounts of data can be pro­cessed quickly and ef­fi­ciently pav­ing way for in­no­va­tions in health, agri­cul­ture and live­stock hus­bandry to be made.

The bioin­for­mat­ics sym­po­sium which at­tracted aca­demics from all the coun­try’s uni­ver­si­ties and other in­de­pen­dent re­search in­sti­tu­tions was held un­der the theme: “Stemi­tis­ing the Bioe­con­omy through Bioin­for­mat­ics.”

Bioin­for­mat­ics and genome sci­ence (BGS) (study of ge­netic ma­te­rial of an or­gan­ism) are grad­u­ally gain­ing roots in Africa, con­tribut­ing to stud­ies that are lead­ing to im­proved un­der­stand­ing of health, dis­ease, agri­cul­ture and food security.

Dr Sanyika said re­search in bioin­for­mat­ics has a cen­tral role in help­ing to ad­vance biomed­i­cal re­search in the coun­try.

Higher and Ter­tiary Ed­u­ca­tion, Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy De­vel­op­ment of­fi­cial, En­gi­neer Wil­lie Ganda, told par­tic­i­pants at the sym­po­sium to en­hance their computer skills and utilise the Univer­sity of Zim­babwe High Per­for­mance Computer cen­tre to help max­i­mum use of modern tech­nolo­gies to stir eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment.

“As a coun­try we now have a very ad­vanced su­per computer but when it comes to use, we have a very lim­ited ca­pac­ity,” he said.

“We need to de­velop our IT skills and utilise this cen­tre to sup­port our re­search in drug de­vel­op­ment, fi­nan­cial an­a­lyt­ics, bank­ing, foren­sic sci­ence, weather fore­cast­ing and cli­ma­tol­ogy among other ar­eas.”

In 2015, Zim­babwe launched its first ever US$5,4 mil­lion high per­for­mance com­put­ing cen­tre be­com­ing the third African coun­try to have such IT in­fra­struc­ture which aims to ad­dress the com­pu­ta­tional re­quire­ments of the wider sci­en­tific com­mu­nity in the coun­try. A high per­for­mance com­put­ing cen­tre or su­per­com­puter is gen­er­ally de­fined as a computer or ar­ray of com­put­ers that act as one col­lec­tive ma­chine ca­pa­ble of pro­cess­ing enor­mous amounts of data.

Su­per­com­put­ers are used for very com­plex jobs such as pro­cess­ing mas­sive sets of data to find in­for­ma­tion, run sim­u­la­tions and solve very large and com­plex prob­lems.

Zim­babwe’s su­per­com­puter has a pro­cess­ing ca­pac­ity of 36 tril­lion cal­cu­la­tions per sec­ond or net­work data stor­age ca­pac­ity of 60 000 ter­abytes.

African In­sti­tute of Biomed­i­cal Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy head, Pro­fes­sor Collen Masimirem­bwa hailed the hold­ing of Zim­babwe’s first bioin­for­mat­ics sym­po­sium, say­ing it was an im­por­tant step in ef­forts to pro­mote the wider ap­pli­ca­tion of the sci­ence in health, agri­cul­ture, en­vi­ron­ment and in­dus­try.

“Through the use of bioin­for­mat­ics, we cut down on ex­per­i­men­tal time,” he said. “We can process huge vol­umes of data quickly and we can shorten the time it takes for new drugs to reach the mar­ket.”

His or­gan­i­sa­tion is in­volved in drug dosage re­search and had come up with mod­els that sought to help peo­ple in Zim­babwe, par­tic­u­larly those on ARVs to get the right doses with­out side ef­fects.

“Africans are much more di­verse com­pared to Cau­casians and Ori­en­tals in terms of their ge­netic make-up and drugs devel­oped in Europe and Asia can have side ef­fects or maybe in­ef­fec­tive when it comes to treat­ment,” Prof Masimirem­bwa said.

“Through the use of bioin­for­mat­ics it’s pos­si­ble to con­duct re­search and come up with ac­cept­able lev­els of dosage among the African pop­u­la­tion here in Zim­babwe. A study we did at AiBST showed that 83 per­cent of the 430 pa­tients on ARVs ex­pe­ri­ence side ef­fects. A num­ber of peo­ple are re­ceiv­ing doses which are too high when re­ceiv­ing drug treat­ment.”

A num­ber of pa­pers were pre­sented at the sym­po­sium that cov­ered a num­ber of top­ics re­lated to bioin­for­mat­ics.

The de­vel­op­ment of bioin­for­mat­ics has been met with some chal­lenges that in­clude in­ad­e­quate in­fra­struc­ture, train­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties, re­search fund­ing, hu­man re­sources, bio-repos­i­to­ries and data­bases.

This has con­trib­uted to the slow pace of de­vel­op­ment in this field in Zim­babwe and across the con­ti­nent.

How­ever, closer col­lab­o­ra­tion among sci­en­tists and re­search in­sti­tu­tions is now pay­ing div­i­dends lead­ing to en­hanced op­por­tu­ni­ties for the de­vel­op­ment of bioin­for­mat­ics.

“There is some hope now,” says a par­tic­i­pant. “Im­proved ac­cess to re­search fund­ing, in­fras­truc­tural sup­port and ca­pac­ity build­ing are help­ing to de­velop bioin­for­mat­ics into an im­por­tant dis­ci­pline in Africa.

“With in­creased con­tri­bu­tion from all stake­hold­ers, these de­vel­op­ments could be fur­ther en­hanced.”

Bioin­for­mat­ics al­lows re­searchers to or­gan­ise data in an ac­ces­si­ble man­ner and al­lows for the de­vel­op­ment of tools and re­sources for data anal­y­sis and speedy pro­cess­ing of re­sults.

“It is our hope that this is the be­gin­ning of a cul­ture whereby this be­comes an an­nual event and we hope to im­prove in terms of quan­tity and qual­ity of re­search pa­pers each year,” said Dr Mu­fan­daedza.

“We want to pro­mote bioin­for­mat­ics ap­pli­ca­tions to help de­velop prob­lem-solv­ing ini­tia­tives that can help our coun­try de­velop.” — Zim­pa­pers Syn­di­ca­tion Ser­vices

Bioin­for­mat­ics is in­volved in drug dosage re­search and has come up with mod­els that seek to help peo­ple in Zim­babwe, par­tic­u­larly those on ARVs, to get the right doses with­out side ef­fects

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