Professor of biochemistry at Stockholm University, von Heijne is the head of the Stockholm Bioinformatics Center (SBC), a national facility designed to provide a critical mass of bioinformatics and computer science expertise for high-level research, methods development, and advanced post-graduate training in bioinformatics. Björn Engquist, professor in the Department of Numerical Analysis and Computing Science, is the director of ParallellDatorCentrum (PDC), Sweden's major high-performance computing centre.
Together, SBC and PDC will build an initial cluster of personal computers. This will incrementally become a supercomputer, made up of 100-200 PCs, for bioinformatics. As they learn more about how to use these machines, they will continue adding to the cluster. "The initial cluster will be built during the fall of 2000", according to Dr. von Heijne, "and both groups are now planning the best way to integrate the current computing environments at Stockholm University and PDC."
Bioinformatics, or biomedical computing, is the application of computer science and technology to problems in the biomolecular sciences. It is one of the key areas in the present data explosion in biology brought about by the genome projects and the new developments in functional genomics and proteomics. The Human Genome Project, an international project to identify all the genes of the human body, forms one of the prime examples of this combination of technology and biology. The existence of the human genetic map will lay the foundation for a revolution in medical diagnosis and treatment.
Bioinformatics research and methods development are currently expanding rapidly in Sweden. Dr. von Heijne describes the area as "the use of computer technology to handle, analyse, and add value to the flood of data coming out of modern genomics and proteomics research". The field includes such applications as information processing (storage, retrieval, and analysis) and modelling biological and behavioural processes. Research at SBC is focused in three areas: protein sequence and structure, molecular evolution, and modelling of cellular function.
Researchers can analyse and make predictions about protein structure from the amino acid sequence. These kinds of predictions can aid in areas like drug design for pharmaceutical development. The analysis and comparison of whole-genome data is a very important aspect of such studies. Molecular evolution looks at how proteins have evolved and how organisms are related to each other. Using the PC cluster, scientists have opportunities for data-mining protein family databases and DNA sequence databases, among others.
There are masses of these kinds of data, and this type of research has many implications. "For example", explained Dr. von Heijne, "we can begin to make evolutionary deductions about bacteria, that is important in the health field, given the increasing numbers of drug-resistant strains of bacteria." Another use of the cluster is to develop models of signalling networks in cells, which can shed light on how genes are turned on and off. "We are able to study metabolic responses at the cellular level, to gain a comprehensive view of the cell from a theoretical perspective."
You can find more information about this Swedish project at the home page of the Stockholm Bioinformatics Center. The topic of cellular signalling research is also addressed in a related project which is described in the VMW article US National Institute of General Medical Sciences awards "glue grant" to create virtual cells, which is to be found in this very issue.