The organizers of the 19th Annual International Conference on Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology (ISMB) could not have predicted that the funeral of an heir to the imperial Hapsburg throne would draw the eyes of the world to Vienna on the July 16 2011, but so it was that the Viennese streets were overflowing with computational biologists just in time for the city to spend a day in the global spotlight.
The ISMB, which this year was held jointly with the 10th Annual European Conference on Computational Biology, is perhaps the major event of the computational biology calendar. Among the more than 1,700 delegates attending ISMB 2011 were keynote speakers Bonnie Berger, Alfonso Valencia, Luis Serrano, Janet Thornton and Michael Ashburner – not forgetting Olga Troyanskaya, whose post-keynote presentation Q&A from Princeton via Skype would have been a pipedream when the inaugural ISMB was held in 1993.
Hot topics at the conference included RNA-seq, talks on which attracted so many attendees that capacity was stretched beyond standing room only. Related to this, the "data deluge" brought about by high throughput technologies, such as RNA-seq, was a challenge being tackled from a computational standpoint by a number of delegates. To highlight the data problem, Janet Thornton estimated the time taken to transfer the entire 1,000 Genomes Project dataset to Australia as 6 months – a figure made more alarming when you consider that China's BGI running its machines at full tilt can sequence 2,000 human genomes per day.
Another strong theme of the research presented was personalized medicine. Work being done on this area ranges from systems biology on gene networks in the context of disease to synthetic biology approaches in which "smart" viruses compute therapeutic instructions to give transduced cells dependent on a biological input. Personalized medicine is just one example of a traditionally non-computational research discipline that is being revolutionized by recent advances in bioinformatics. Michal Linial, one of three conference chairs, explained that computational biology is currently "changing all classical biology."
Computational biologists are perhaps more aware than most of the need to share data as widely as possible, in a way that makes re-use of the data user friendly. Two initiatives to promote data sharing held workshops at the conference: BioSharing and ELIXIR. At the BioSharing workshop, which discussed the bioDBcore database cataloging project, Genome Biology appeared on the panel as a voice of open access publishing and representative of BioMed Central. In addition to Genome Biology, BioMed Central had several other journals represented at the ISMB, including a strong presence from BMC Bioinformatics and GigaScience.
Next year's ISMB will be held at Long Beach, California, while ECCB 2012 will take place in Basel. Early birds can find out more at https://www.iscb.org/ismb2012 and https://www.bc2.ch/2012/. Genome Biology's own conference – "Beyond the Genome 2011" – includes a Genome Informatics pre-meeting to be held 19th September in Washington, DC.