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Phyloinformatics Hackathon at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center

Mix together a couple of dozen computer programmers with a common set of goals, lots of coffee, and stir for a week. That's the recipe for the Phyloinformatics Hackathon being held this week at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent). The word "hackathon" may sound sinister to some people, but in fact these hackers are not breaking into any bank accounts. They have converged on Durham for five days to collaboratively write software that will be used every day by thousands of scientists around the world.

"This is a very unique way of doing things," says Kathleen Smith, the director of NESCent. "It's unlike any other scientific meeting in that the goal is to actually create new software tools as a group, face to face, in real time."

Phylogenetics is the study of the evolutionary relationships between organisms and their genes. The field is fundamental to many areas of basic biological research, and has applications from tracking the progress of disease epidemics to figuring out how best to conserve endangered populations. Techniques from phylogenetics even have been used to study the relationships among human languages and among medieval manuscripts.

Researchers rely on a bewildering array of phylogenetic methods for various specialized tasks. Solving complex problems often relies putting these individual methods together in complex ways. "The flowchart can get very complicated very fast", says Amy Zanne, a postdoctoral researcher at NESCent whose research combines morphological, physiological and ecological data with phylogenetic methods. "Glue software is needed to make these tools speak the same language".

Leading programmers from as far away as Japan and New Zealand have come to NESCent to build the missing pieces of glue software. Participants include developers of specific phylogenetic software packages, on the one hand, and experts in designing glue software toolkits such as BioPerl and BioJava. "The p
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Contact: Kristin Jenkins
kjenkins@nescent.org
919-668-4544
National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent)
14-Dec-2006


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