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Sampling the Delights of ISMB 2008

By John Russell

July 21, 2008 | TORONTO – If you’re a computational biologist, why aren’t you here? Then again, perhaps you are. Roughly 1700 computational biologists are attending the 16th annual Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology (ISMB) conference, now run by the International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB). On alternate years ISCB now jointly produces the event with European Conferences on Computational Biology.

This is just the second year ISCB has fully managed the event and it’s also the second time ISMB adopted a “massively parallel” track structure to provide more opportunities for delegates. ISCB president Burkard Rost said the change is paying off, “Roughly 35 percent of all the major papers presented at all of the ISMB conferences were presented last year (Vienna) and this.”

With about 200 talks covering nearly every type on computational tool, ISMB 2008 is a feast for those seeking insight into the latest computational tools and methods. But it’s not just about tools, noted Jill Mesirov, a conference co-chair, the CIO of the Broad Institute, and a member of the MIT Center for Cancer Research

“We’re very driven by the biological questions we want to answer, and we don’t just go to ISMB, we go to ACR, but we live on the interface: we’re driven by the biology and we’re also driven by the methodology and we need places to be able to exercise both halves of our brain,” said Mesirov. Today, that’s ISMB.

Attendance is down somewhat from the high of 2200 in 2004 (Glasgow) and nearly flat with last year. No doubt the slowing economy is tightening travel budgets in academia and industry. Conference organizers also cited difficulties by some in obtaining travel visas and lessened grant support.

Nevertheless, the keynote lineup is impressive. Claire Fraser-Liggett of the University of Maryland Medical School delivered the opening keynote on Sunday, tackling the bewildering world of metagenomics in which computational tools are critical for making sense of the swelling pile of sequence data. On Monday, Howard Hughes Medical Investigator (HHMI) Eugene Meyers surveyed a variety of imaging bioinformatics tools and made a strong pitch for imaging data and interpretation becoming the next important driver of biological insight.

He presented work his group has done on imaging intracellular activities, whole cell lineage, particularly neurons, in fruit flies and worms. Meyers also discussed plans to image 300 whole brains from mice. The size and complexity of datasets from these experiments, he said, will dwarf genomic datasets. All ISMB keynote are available online at

Other prominent keynoters include David Haussler, winner of the ISCB’s 2008 Senior Scientist Accomplishment Award and an HHMI and UCSC researcher; Bernhard Palsson, a leading microbial researcher from UCSD and a pioneer in modeling microbial metabolism; Aviv Regev, winner of  ICSB’s 2008 Overton Prize (for young-to-mid-career investigators) and faculty member at Broad Institute; David Jaffe, associate director for computational research and development, Broad Institute; Hanah Margalit, professor of computing molecular biology, The Hebrew University; and Morag Park, department of oncology, McGill University.

Broadly speaking, ISMB 2008 themes are proteomics, imaging, and genomics/metagenomics, said Mesirov. About half of the talks resulted from ideas originated by conference organizers and half from member submissions, said Rost. Also serving on the steering committee was Shoshana Wodak, scientific director of The Center for Computational Biology and Senior Scientist in the Structural Biology program, Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto.

ISMB 2008 runs through Thursday, but it’s not all bits and bytes and genomes. Check out the invitation to Tuesday’s special event and try to identify any of this shadowy cast of characters (one hint – Rost is not ordinarily bald):

Next year the conference will be held in Stockholm, Sweden, June 27-July 2, 2009.


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