Brussels, 18 Jan 2005
The emerging field of bioinformatics, which uses computers in biological research, especially gene sequencing, has become increasingly important following the completion of hundreds of genome sequencing projects.
Yet while the demand for skilled staff is on the increase in sequencing centres, research institutes and pharmaceutical companies, experts in both biology and computer sciences remain a scarce commodity.
Reacting to this concern, the European Commission decided to fund a Fifth Framework Programme (FP5) project aimed at 'developing some new professionally produced teaching material for bioinformatics based on an existing online course,' project coordinator Terri Attwood, professor of bioinformatics at the University of Manchester in the UK, told CORDIS News.
The EMBER project, which stands for European Multimedia Bioinformatics Educational Resource, is based on BioActivity, an interactive practical package developed by the University of Manchester for its bioinformatics masters degree.
During the project, the nine partners (which come from five European countries, Canada and South Africa) were divided into two groups: those developing the training material, and those testing it through user trials once it had been developed. The ninth partner was a professional multimedia publisher, ensuring the high quality of the materials.
As Professor Attwood explained, the EMBER material, which is suitable for use in conventional face-to-face classes, or in self-paced settings such as the home or the workplace, comprises a self-contained interactive web-tutorial and the equivalent stand-alone tutorial on CD-ROM for those who do not have Internet access.
The principal areas covered in the tutorial include both basic and advanced aspects of bioinformatics, as well as case studies with particular biological themes. The basic topics deal with the translation of DNA sequences, searches of protein sequence and protein family databases, sequence alignment and protein structure classification. The advanced topics cover homology modelling and threading, and more challenging analyses with uncharacterised sequences.
'EMBER is one step towards the provision of self-contained bioinformatics teaching materials,' said Professor Attwood. 'It has already replaced BioActivity in Manchester's Bioinformatics MSc [Master of Science degree] and will be used in our Distance Learning MSc.'
Although the EMBER website is free of charge, 'users need to contact us for a username and password in order to be able to register in the system,' Professor Attwood said.
'At first I was against the registration process as I thought it might scare people off,' Professor Attwood told CORDIS News. 'But in fact it is only there to help manage the course and to ensure that students entering the system only take courses they are registered for. It also helps the tutor in managing his or her course and assessing the students.'
Asked if she felt the project had achieved all it had set out to accomplish, Professor Attwood explained that broadly speaking the answer is 'yes'. However, she added, 'although the project formally ended in April 2004, we are still working on developing the project.'
'At present,' explained Professor Attwood, the database resides in the Netherlands where it was developed. We now want it to be fully installed in Manchester to continue developing additional modules. Bioinformatics is such a rapidly evolving scientific field that to be useful the website needs to be updated frequently,' she concluded.
For further information about EMBER please visit:
Professor Terri Attwood