Big Data in Biology

This keynote lecture was given during the ECCB'14 conference, Tuesday, September 9, 2014, Palais de la Musique et des Congrès, Strasbourg, France. Dr. Ewan Birney was introduced by Professor Thomas Lengauer, Max Planck Institute for Computer Science, Saarbrücken, Germany.

Molecular biology is now a leading example of a data intensive science, with both pragmatic and theoretical challenges being raised by data volumes and dimensionality of the data. These changes are present in both “large scale” consortia science and small scale science, and across now a broad range of applications – from human health, through to agriculture and ecosystems. All of molecular life science is feeling this effect.
This shift in modality is creating a wealth of new opportunities and has some accompanying challenges. In particular there is a continued need for a robust information infrastructure for molecular biology. This ranges from the physical aspects of dealing with data volume through to the more statistically challenging aspects of interpreting it. A particular problem is finding causal relationships in the high level of correlative data. Drawing on recent experience I will explore both the “blue collar” challenges of data volume and the “white collar” challenges of interpretation.
I will end with the serendipitous invention of using DNA for an entirely different reason – as a long-time horizon digital archiving material. I will describe this method and some of its benefits (as well as a few downsides) and explain how a future culture in 10,000 years time may still be able to read all of Shakespeare’s sonnets – and perhaps much more.



Ewan Birney

European Bioinformatics Institute, Hinxton, United Kingdom
Associate Director

Bio: Ewan Birney, a British biochemists and bioinformatician born in 1972, is a leader in the computing and analysis of the genome. 
After leaving Eton College and before enrolling at the University of Oxford, Birney interned at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, under the supervision of James Watson - a discoverer of the structure of DNA. Later, as a PhD student at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, Birney was involved in the Human Genome Project, which was led by James Watson. Within the project, he helped to assembly the genome database. Shortly after receiving his PhD Birney was employed by the EMBL European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, and soon started to coordinate large-scale collaborative projects. Among others, two big public databases resulted from these projects: Ensembl Genome Browser, with vertebrate genomes and gene annotations, and ENCODE (Encyclopedia of DNA Elements), a database of functional elements in the human genome. Ewan Birney and his team also developed a number of open-source and widely-used bioinformatics tools. For his outstanding achievements, Birney was awarded with various awards such as the Francis Crick Lecture from the Royal Society (2003), Chris Overton Prize from the international Society for Computational Biology (2005) and the Benjamin Franklin Award (2005) for contributions in Open Source Bioinformatics from in association with BioIT. The current research of Birney’s group focuses on sequence algorithms to store digital data in DNA molecules, and on associating natural genome variations with cellular phenotypes. Since 2012, Ewan Birney also serves as an Associate Director of EMBL-EBI. Ewan Birney maintains a blog, Bioinformatician at Large, and is active on Twitter with over 5000 followers.


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