Are "computational biology" and "bioinformatics" simply different terms for the same thing or is there a real difference?
I found this post by Russ Altman quite good. Below is his opinion about the two similar but distinct fields:
Computational biology: the study of biology using computational techniques. The goal is to learn new biology, knowledge about living sytems. It is about science.
Bioinformatics: the creation of tools (algorithms, databases) that solve problems. The goal is to build useful tools that work on biological data. It is about engineering.
Just as a note:
This is just one persons opinion and I have heard many other definitions for both of these terms. For example, one person I know mentioned that he believes computational biology is concerned with very theoretical research such as NP-hardness (ie. articles published in the Journal of Computational Biology). Other people think that bioinformatics is an applied field that is essentially using already published tools.
Bioinformatics is a broad field that interfaces a variety of life science disciplines (biology, genetics, biochemistry, biophysics, etc) with a variety of quantitative sciences (mathematics, statistics, computer science, engineering, etc). Bioinformatics techniques typically involve developing and applying software and algorithms to computationally intensive biological questions, such as those common in structural biology, genomics, sequence analysis, and systems biology.
Some scientists draw a distinction between the term bioinformatics and computational biology. While these areas indeed broad and diverse, these distinctions in terms are not consistent or well-defined.
Case in point: @GWW's answer cites two different definitions, while another has already been suggested in response to his answer (as a comment). More definitions are sure to come from additional answers, comments, and edits. None of these definitions are necessarily wrong, but in the same way none are "right" as there is no objective way to determine which of the definitions is "better" than the others. If you were to ask 5 experts in the field, you are likely to get 5 different definitions.
Computational Biology - usually involves creating a model (software or other logic) where you attempt to shed light on some process of biology by building information flows using known physics/chemistry/biology --- (how to cells divide ? -> build a biomechanic model of mitotic spindles ...) --- You are building up complexity in your model to simulate biology to ever increasing levels of accuracy
Bioinformatics --> measure biology then analyze the data --- biology already has the complexity --- You are attempting to understand this complexity by identifying patterns in measurement data
Both of these fields drive research efforts to create better sensors used to measure biological processing
I think there is no general agreement on what is computational biology and what is bioinformatics, so the answers are bound to vary, depending on the field and the background of the person. Let me list a few options:
They are the same
There is a good reason to think that these terms are used interchangeably, particularly in the academic environment. Moreover, while the two terms co-exist in English, in some other languages/countries only one of them exists, used to convey both meanings: e.g., in French one can say bioinformatique/bioinformaticien(ne), but there is no translation for computational biology.
Computational biology is a method, bioinformatics is a tool
Some people, more prone to treating the figures of language literally, would say that computational biology is about mathematical approach to biology, whereas bioinformatics is doing these computations in a computer. This approach seems to lack nuance and broad knwoledge, but it is surprisingly common even among the experts.
Bioinformatics is about sequencing
If one looks for a job outside of academia, bioinformatician in a job description usually means somebody who can process sequencing data, i.e., trim, clean, assemble/map genomes, calculate the differential expression, etc. Biostatistician usually describes someone involved in experiment/study design and the subsequent data processing. Computational biologist occasionally surfaces as a term in job descriptions coming from big research labs, meaning that the job description is rather vague - these are usually R&D jobs.
These are two broad and overlapping domains of knwoledge
As I mentioned in the beginning, people working in a narrow domain would tend to equate the two terms. However the range of computational disciplines related to biology is very broad: some of them are more naturally associated with bioinformatics than the others. The following list is definitely incomplete, but should give the idea:
- Processing and analyzing sequencing data
- Protein and RNA structure modeling
- Biostatistics (study design, analysis of non-sequencing data, etc.)
- Population genetics
- Mathematical ecology
To summarize: there is no definitive answer to the question, but there is a lot to learn by exploring it.