Are "computational biology" and "bioinformatics" simply different terms for the same thing or is there a real difference?

  • $\begingroup$ Probably better to ask them directly :) biostars.org Actually there are few questions going into that direction already: biostars.org/search/?q=computational+biology $\endgroup$ – mivilar Aug 16 '12 at 9:11
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you! I'm glad that someone recognizes that there is a difference meta.biology.stackexchange.com/a/169/389 $\endgroup$ – bobthejoe Aug 17 '12 at 7:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Chirag And between the answers and comments, we're lucky enough to have 4 alternative definitions for everyone to choose from! $\endgroup$ – Daniel Standage Aug 22 '12 at 19:51
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    $\begingroup$ @bobthejoe I don't think anyone has suggested there is no differences, but getting the community to agree on exactly what those differences are is an exercise in futility. $\endgroup$ – Daniel Standage Aug 22 '12 at 19:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Chirag Why did you roll back Daniel's edit, it was a more grammatically correct version? $\endgroup$ – jonsca Aug 23 '12 at 12:56

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.

  • $\begingroup$ This is perhaps the most closest you can ever get to the definition of this field. :) $\endgroup$ – Chirag Aug 16 '12 at 15:16
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    $\begingroup$ As informative as this answer is, keep in mind that many (talented) scientists will disagree, or at least have a slightly different answer. $\endgroup$ – Daniel Standage Aug 16 '12 at 16:07
  • $\begingroup$ Would bioinformatics not be more about the use of tools to solve statistical problems than the creation of such tools? $\endgroup$ – Ultimate Gobblement Aug 16 '12 at 18:12
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    $\begingroup$ I don’t think this definition is commonly agreed on. Where we work, most people are self-proclaimed bioinformaticians (heck, we even have it in the institute’s name) but according to this answer they’d be classified as computational biologists. They may also do the latter (because the topics are usually intrinsically linked) but the focus is definitely biological study, not development of tools. $\endgroup$ – Konrad Rudolph Sep 5 '12 at 7:25
  • $\begingroup$ @KonradRudolph: Again the goal of my answer was not to give a concrete definition hence why I gave an additional note showing other people have varying opinions on what they are. The definitions are going to be very institute / lab specific depending on what their research topics and goals are. $\endgroup$ – GWW Sep 5 '12 at 12:26

I think this question is on topic here, although yes you would definitely get a lot of answers at BioStars. But consider this from the bioinformatics tag wiki on this site.

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.

  • $\begingroup$ There must be an option to choose multiple answers :) $\endgroup$ – Chirag Aug 16 '12 at 15:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Chirag Well, unfortunately there are many "good" answers to this question...which is kind of the point. $\endgroup$ – Daniel Standage Aug 16 '12 at 16:09
  • $\begingroup$ +1 but I shall contest that the formation of that tag was contested (by myself) meta.biology.stackexchange.com/q/168/389 $\endgroup$ – bobthejoe Aug 17 '12 at 7:39

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
  • Epidemiology
  • Mathematical ecology

To summarize: there is no definitive answer to the question, but there is a lot to learn by exploring it.


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