THE ONTOGENESIS NETWORK - A network of excellence to foster the creation, ontogeny and evolution of biological, bioinformatics and medical ontologies

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Zoology


Information about biology and medicine is stored on a large number of computer databases around the world. However, because these data have not been defined according to agreed standards, these databases cannot communicate with one another, and the data themselves are not interoperable and are therefore of limited value. Just as scientists discussing a subject use technical 'jargon', when computers need to communicate scientific information with one another unambiguously over the Web, they must use a standard 'language'. In computer science, this is known as an ontology, which is a way of representing, in a computer-processable form, our understanding about a particular area of knowledge. Once an ontology has been defined, it can be used to organise and describe digital information in a manner that facilitates automatically searching for it, reasoning over it, and integrating it with other information. Ontologies specific for many different areas of knowledge are being developed as part of the push towards the 'next generation' World Wide Web, called the 'Semantic Web'. In the biological sciences, ontology development is well advanced in the field of genetics, but not in other fields such as ecology. Similarly, medical ontology development is well advanced in areas such as anatomy, but less so in other fields such as physiology and infectious diseases.Developing ontologies is difficult work. It requires those who are expert in logic and ontology development to collaborate with those who have specialist biological or medical knowledge, and with others who understand the computer software that can use ontologies for data description and sharing. Often these groups of people start with very little understanding of one another's worlds, and find it difficult to communicate.The Ontogenesis Network is a newly formed grouping of leading UK experts in these separate fields, drawn from biology and computer science departments in universities, from private companies, from the Research Councils' central laboratories, and from the European Bioinformatics Institute, one of the three global bioinformatics service agencies that host the huge volumes of data derived from the human genome project and related activities. We share a recognition of the importance of ontologies for the future of information sharing in the digital age, and have committed ourselves to work together to promote the development of biological, bioinformatics and medical ontologies in the best possible way. Since ontology creation is a novel form of human activity, we are all learning how to do this properly. While excellent collaborative work has led to the first internationally agreed standards for such developments, the field is so new that much remains to be done. First, therefore, the Network partners will meet together regularly to share their specialist expertise, to learn from one another and to grow in mutual understanding, thereby enhancing their ability to develop and use ontologies. Then they will fulfil the Ontogenesis Network's primary function, which is to serve the biomedical community, both in the UK and internationally, by sharing their understanding of how to use ontologies to enhance biomedical data to the fullest possible extent, through publications, tutorials, seminars, symposia and the Network's web site.


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