Genome gateways: but how to get into the garden?

Most genome databases now feature more than just basic sequence information; they encompass a wide range of annotated information on factors such as disease states, protein structure and polymorphisms. Yet many researchers remain unaware of the potential of these resources. A much-cited survey commissioned two years ago by the London-based Wellcome Trust revealed that only about half of the biomedical researchers using genome databases were familiar with all the tools on offer to make full use of the data. A significant number didn't even know of the existence of the European Bioinformatics Institute's public Ensembl database and website, which collates vast amounts of diverse information on the human genome. The findings prompted the trust to launch an educational initiative in 2001 to draw attention to these databases.

So where do you turn to make sense of the number of databases available and the array of tools they offer? A good starting point is the annual database special issue of Nucleic Acids Research (31; 1–516; 2003). The online version of this issue contains an index of major databases along with a brief summary of what each offers, information that is compiled by Andreas Baxevanis of the genome-technology branch at the US National Human Genome Research Institute.

Newcomers are often overwhelmed by the tools on offer and the knowledge of genetics that is presupposed on the part of the user. The tools tend to assume an understanding of terms and principles that are unfamiliar to, say, physiologists and pharmacologists, and without this knowledge the users cannot feel confidence in the results that they get. A useful guide for the perplexed is A User's Guide to the Human Genome, a web special published by Nature Genetics ( This is designed for the genome neophyte, and guides the user through worked examples to give them confidence in understanding concepts and strategies that can then be used to empower their own research.