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World Creativity and Innovation Day 2024: healthier communities through bioinformatics

15 April 2024

Human genomics
Microbial Genomics
Bioinformatics Graphic Esr
Bioinformatics Graphic Esr

On World Creativity and Innovation Day (21 April), we celebrate the field of bioinformatics and its profound impact on health and well-being. Through collaborative efforts and cutting-edge technologies, the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) has been at the forefront of Aotearoa New Zealand bioinformatics – a fusion of biology and data science, revolutionising the way we understand and tackle complex community challenges. 

What is bioinformatics? 

Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field that combines biology, computer science, mathematics and statistics to analyse and interpret biological data. Using bioinformatics, scientists can decode the mysteries hidden within DNA, unravelling the complex web of genetic information that defines us and the world we live in. 

Think of genomics as a vast library, filled with books representing the genetic information of all living organisms. At first glance, all this information can seem overwhelming – a sea of letters, numbers and sequences. That’s where bioinformatics comes in. Like a librarian organising, cataloguing and analysing all the stored information, bioinformatics can assist scientists in extracting insights from the huge amounts of genetic data available. It’s the art of deciphering the intricate language of genetic information, and turning it into a meaningful narrative.  

In the video below, ESR senior scientist and bioinformatician William Taylor describes how genomic science is being used to analyse the microflora and safety of our drinking water.  

Making sense of the numbers 

Through statistical analysis, and computational models, bioinformatics helps us understand how genes work and interact with each other, and with our environment. For example, ESR, a key player in genomics and bioinformatics for infectious diseases within Aotearoa, crunched data sequenced from COVID-19 patients to demonstrate its spread through airborne transmission, which helped increase understanding about the importance of masking as a protection tool. Additional analysis was used to track the emergence of different variants and predict if antibody treatments would be effective for severe cases. 

Bioinformatics has also been used in our hospitals to help identify whether serious antibiotic-resistant pathogens detected on a particular ward came in with patients or were spreading within the hospital, vital information that has prevented disruptive and expensive decontaminations of wards and helped identify previously unknown transmission events. This type of on-site sequencing and interpretation of data by hospital staff was unthinkable even five years ago.

Beyond healthcare, bioinformatics at ESR is empowering fields as wide-ranging as anthropology, forensic science and food safety, alongside the detection of illegally trafficked and mislabelled products.

Our expertise and technology is also assisting groups throughout New Zealand, in areas including conservation efforts of endangered species. For example, the genetic makeup of taonga species, such as the Kākāpō (a native nocturnal parrot), are being studied to better understand genetic diversity which can inform breeding efforts. Bioinformatics is also used understand the factors that contribute to their health and wellbeing, like infections, to increase their survival chances. 

Innovating health and wellbeing, one genome at a time 

Bioinformatics is a rapidly evolving field, where advancements in technology and data analytics continue to reshape our understanding of health and the environment. ESR recognises the dynamic nature of this discipline and is dedicated to staying at the forefront. Without it, the library of genetic information would remain an unread book, full of untapped potential. But with bioinformatics, we can build a better New Zealand by decoding the language of life, one pattern at a time.


Learn more about ESR's genomics and bioinformatics work.