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