Background: The recent flood of data from genome sequences and functional genomics has given rise to new field, bioinformatics, which combines elements of biology and computer science.
Objectives: Here we propose a definition for this new field and review some of the research that is being pursued, particularly in relation to transcriptional regulatory systems.
Methods: Our definition is as follows: Bioinformatics is conceptualizing biology in terms of macromolecules (in the sense of physical-chemistry) and then applying "informatics" techniques (derived from disciplines such as applied maths, computer science, and statistics) to understand and organize the information associated with these molecules, on a large-scale.
Results and conclusions: Analyses in bioinformatics predominantly focus on three types of large datasets available in molecular biology: macromolecular structures, genome sequences, and the results of functional genomics experiments (e.g. expression data). Additional information includes the text of scientific papers and "relationship data" from metabolic pathways, taxonomy trees, and protein-protein interaction networks. Bioinformatics employs a wide range of computational techniques including sequence and structural alignment, database design and data mining, macromolecular geometry, phylogenetic tree construction, prediction of protein structure and function, gene finding, and expression data clustering. The emphasis is on approaches integrating a variety of computational methods and heterogeneous data sources. Finally, bioinformatics is a practical discipline. We survey some representative applications, such as finding homologues, designing drugs, and performing large-scale censuses. Additional information pertinent to the review is available over the web at http://bioinfo.mbb.yale.edu/what-is-it.