Fourth Institute bioinformatician wins open access award

A fourth Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute alumnus – Heng Li – has won the eleventh Benjamin Franklin Award for Open Access in the Life Sciences. Remarkably the Institute has trained and developed more than one third of the winners of this award, reinforcing the data-sharing and open-access ethos of the Institute. Even more remarkably, all four winners have been trained in Richard Durbin’s research group: Heng Li (2012), Alex Bateman (2010), Sean Eddy (2007) and Ewan Birney (2005).

Heng Li was chosen from a shortlist of seven open-acess practitioners by voting members of the Bioinformatics.org community.

The Sanger Institute is founded on, and dedicated to, the open-access and sharing of data to power bioinformatic research around the world. However, data sharing without the tools to interpret and interrogate the data is useless. So the Institute is also committed to research that powers the development of, and delivery and sharing of, software to allow genomic data to be compared, mined and studied.

It’s therefore really fitting that Heng Li has been awarded the Benjamin Franklin Award for Open Access in the Life Sciences. His input has created essential tools to enable next-generation sequencing data to be analysed, interpreted and shared. For example, he has helped to produce a range of sequence alignment tools and algorithms including SAMtools, BWA, MAQ and TreeSoft. Using these programs, researchers have been able to read the whole genomes of organisms to find genetic differences between individuals in the same species. For example, research into structural changes in the genome and the genetic basis of human disease based on the 1000 Genomes Project use this software.

In addition, he has developed tools to analyse gene family evolution and build phylogenetic trees, including the TreeBeST program, TreeFam and EnsemblGeneTrees databases. Research using these resources is revealing insights into the evolution of species and the changes happening within them.

Yet such tools are of little value unless researchers are given help and advice in using the software and databases and mining their full potential. Heng has not only contributed to the creation and sharing of a wide range of vital software tools that form an essential resource for bioinformaticians around the world, he is also dedicated to the ideal of sharing knowledge by helping bioinformaticians to understand and use his tools by regularly contributing to bioinformatics forums and guiding new users.

Info on previous winners from Richard Durbin’s group (taken from the Benjamin Franklin Award page on Bioinformatics.org website):

2010 – Alex Bateman
Alex won the 2010 Benjamin Franklin Award for leading the freely available PfamRfam and MEROPS databases. He was also the Executive Editor for the open-access Database issue of the journal Nucleic Acids Research for many years. Furthermore, Bateman helped initiate the RNA Families track at the journal RNA Biology, where a Wikipedia article is required for each published RNA family.

2007 – Sean Eddy
Sean received 2007 Benjamin Franklin Award for the development and free distribution of HMMER, which has revolutionized the use of profile Hidden Markov Models in protein sequence analysis, and for the co-creation of the Pfam database of protein domains and families, which has been an essential counterpart as the basis of genome annotations, family classification systems such as GO, and much of our common language of protein annotation.

2005 – Ewan Birney
Ewan Birney was honoured with the 2005 Benjamin Franklin Award for his promotion of Open Access in bioinformatics and science. He has been a key developer in the Ensembl and BioPerl projects and a strong advocate for making genome information freely available.