BMC Bioinformatics and BMC Genomics met ISMB 2012

ISMB – Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology – held its 20th anniversary meeting in Long Beach California in July. The main event was held over three days, preceded by two days of special interest group and satellite meetings.

A total of six Keynote speakers were invited to present at the beginning and end of each day’s sessions.  The subjects covered included data integration, transcriptome structure and chromatin; population genome sequencing; integrative structural biology and membrane proteins.  The first keynote speech was a jointly presented history of the International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB) and its annual meetings. Rick Lathrop and Larry Hunter reminded us of the research done over the years and how it informs future science. They were introduced by Terry Gaasterland another long time member of the society.
We were reminded of the spiritual father of ISMB and BioMatrix (1987) – Harold Morowitz who has been very influential particularly in the early days of computational biology when the general view was that it would not work. In 1985 he was chair of an animal welfare committee that was important in the development of animal models. He is reported as saying ‘computers are to biology as mathematics is to physics’. I do not believe there were any disbelievers in this audience.

In 1993 the 1st ISMB meeting was organised and held by Larry Hunter, amongst others. He took over at this point and talked about the history of the work in which he has been involved – even down to showing us correspondence via gopher and embnet. Now those were the days! He is of the opinion that the AI complete problem may well be solved. In this context it is the one problem that if solved would solve all AI problems.  He believes that the 1st 20 years of ISMB prove that ‘programs are intellectual partners in understanding life’.

In 2012 there were nine parallel sessions, including a technology track, late breaking research, special sessions and research papers. The full range of topics can still be seen here.

A large part of ISCB’s remit is in training as evinced by the workshops both leading up to and in the main conference. One of the parallel sessions was entitled ‘Navigating the granting jungle’ and another covered ‘From Postdoc to Principal Investigator’ aimed at the up and coming researchers. There was also a session on ‘Workshop on education in Bioinformatics (Web) – The future in Bioinformatics training’.  In addition there was a special track on harnessing community involvement in bioinformatics.  Much of this session involved Wiki based community efforts that fitted seamlessly with the announcement on Sunday 15th July by the committee’s president, Burkhard Rost and Wikipedia evangelist Alex Bateman, of a competition to improve the existing Wikipedia articles about any aspect of computational biology. The competition was announced during this meeting in the presence of a large cohort of computational scientists in order that discussions could be easily initiated and collaborations begun, if wished. Prizes will be awarded to the best contributions. Naturally the details may be found in Wikipedia.

With so much choice it was very difficult to decide where to go as so many of the parallel sessions had relevant papers. I was easily able to move between the tracks as the talks were kept to time and a five minute buffer was provided for moving between the conference rooms. This was a definite bonus. One of the talks that impressed me, and was relevant to my particular journals, was that by Jijun Tang on ‘Using Game Engines to Build Cloud based 3D genome browsers’. He presented initial results from work using state-of-the-art game engines for visualizations of genomic and epigenomic information. We saw a prototype system used to provide us with a trip through a human genome.

BioMed Central was represented there in the form of delegates and exhibitors. GigaScience was there and feedback may be found elsewhere from two others (Scott & Iain). BMC Bioinformatics is usually present at ISMB and this year was no different: funding too was provided by that journal for the ISCB student council workshop.

This was an extremely well organised and enjoyable conference – thank you all.

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