Introduction

Ecological informatics (ecoinformatics) is an interdisciplinary framework for the management, analysis, and synthesis of ecological data by advanced computational technology. Management of ecological data aims at facilitating data standardization, retrieval, and sharing by means of metadata and object-oriented programming. Analysis and synthesis of ecological data target elucidating principles of information processing, structuring, and functioning of ecosystems, and forecasting of ecosystem behaviors by means of bioinspired computation and hybrid models.

Ecological informatics currently undergoes the process of consolidation as a discipline. It corresponds and partially overlaps with the well-established disciplines of bioinfor-matics and ecological modeling but is taking its distinct shape and scope. In Figure 1, a comparison is made between ecological informatics and bioinformatics. Even though both are based on the same computational technology, their focus

DNA microarray data

Genomic sequence data

Physiological data

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Gene function and interaction

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Environmental data

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Genotypes of populations

Structure and functioning of ecosystems

Figure 1 Ecological informatics versus bioinformatics. (a) Scope of bioinformatics. (b) Scope of ecoinformatics. Modified from Oltvai ZN and Barabasi AL (2002) Life's complexity pyramid. Science 298: 763-764.

Genotypes of populations

Structure and functioning of ecosystems

Figure 1 Ecological informatics versus bioinformatics. (a) Scope of bioinformatics. (b) Scope of ecoinformatics. Modified from Oltvai ZN and Barabasi AL (2002) Life's complexity pyramid. Science 298: 763-764.

is different. Bioinformatics focuses very much on determining gene function and interaction, protein structure and function, as well as phenotypes of organisms utilizing DNA microarray, genomic, physiological, and metabolic data (Figure 1a). By contrast ecological informatics focuses to determine genotypes of populations by utilizing genomic, phenotypic, and environmental data as well as structure and functioning of ecosystems by utilizing community, environmental, and climate data (Figure 1b).

A comparison is made between ecological modeling and ecological informatics in Figure 2. Even though both rely on similar ecological data they adopt different approaches in utilizing the data. While ecological modeling processes ecological data top down by ad hoc designed statistical or mathematical modeling methods, ecological informatics infers ecological processes from ecological data patterns bottom up by computational techniques. The cross-sectional area between ecological modeling and ecological informatics reflects a new generation of hybrid models that enable to predict emergent ecosystem structures and behaviors, and ecosystem evolution. Typically hybrid models embody biologically inspired computation in deterministic ecological models.

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