Bioinformatics major established

A collaborative effort between the Biology and Computer Science Departments will bring the Bioinformatics major to Mercyhurst University next fall.

The new DNA Sequencing Center opened last month in the Biology Department will enable the Biology and Computer Science Departments to analyze biological data as part of the growing field of study.

“The idea of the new major followed closely with the establishment of the new DNA sequencing lab,” said Michael Elnitsky, Ph.D., Chair of the Biology Department.
“When we got the grants to establish the facilities, it was a natural progression to be able to offer the new major.”

Bioinformatics is the combination of biology and the information content that is found in biological molecules, particularly DNA. Bioinformatics uses informatics or computer science techniques to analyze the data found in the molecules of DNA to make sense out of them in the biological context.

“It’s essentially the marriage of computer science and biology. We are generating such a large amount of data that we have to use the techniques of computer science to be able to understand it,” Elnitsky said.

The major is still in the developmental stage; however, the Biology Department is taking steps to begin enrolling students for the fall 2015 semester. Current biology students are utilizing the DNA lab for research, but they will not officially join the major until it has been approved. The sequencing lab will be available to students taking classes in the major.

The faculty teaching the major includes Michael Foulk, Ph.D., the new assistant professor of Biology who teaches Cellular and Molecular Biology, and possesses a background in bioinformatics. In addition, assistant professor of Biology Sara Turner, Ph.D., will teach courses in Genetics.

Chad Redmond, Ph.D., associate dean of the Tom Ridge of School of Intelligence Studies and Information Science will be teaching and developing new computer science courses for the major.

“Following up on the lab and talking with the administration, we thought the pieces for the major were there, including the faculty expertise,” Elnitsky said.

While the curriculum is not yet fully established, there are classes future students are expected to take.

“The classes students would take in the biology side are Cellular Molecular Biology, Genetics, a Bioinformatics course, which will be a new offering, and some electives students will be able to choose from,” said Foulk. “From the computer side, math classes, including Statistics and Programming.”

According to Foulk, bioinformatics is not a popular field at the moment, but it is quickly growing.

“It is the sexiest cutting edge in biology right now,” said Foulk. “This is the future of biology. Understanding biology at the sequence level is going to be a growing field going forward and it really is the leading edge of biological research right now.”

The equipment utilized by Mercyhurst students is part of a growing field which can lead to advances in medical technology.

“Within the next 10 years we are likely to be using personalized medicine, where you may walk into your doctor’s office, provide a DNA sample, and have your genome sequence and then we can personalize your medicine,” Elnitsky said.

Foulk said that with the direction that medicine and all of biological sciences are heading, bioinformatics tools will be integrated in everything from medicine to agriculture to forensic sciences.

“All of biology is moving to this idea of genetics and big data sets and now we’ll be able to train students to use these tools,” Foulk said.

Elnitsky claims that from a university standing, Mercyhurst is on the leading edge. Even other undergraduate degrees in bioinformatics lack the tools that Mercyhurst has.
“Gannon offers bioinformatics. Gannon doesn’t have a lab like we do,” Elnitsky said.