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Intelligent Machines

Biotech Computing Opens Up

An African firm turns to open-source programming.

Open-source programming created a revolution in operating systems, making Linux a popular alternative to Microsoft’s Windows. The idea-to make software source code open for modification by anyone-has caught on in large part because more eyes on the software means rapid improvements and fewer bugs; companies like Red Hat have turned the idea into profits by selling easily installed, well-supported versions of Linux. Now Cape Town, South Africa-based Electric Genetics is, for the first time, applying that business model to biomedical software.

In June, Electric Genetics plans to launch its first open-source product, a package of programs that link human DNA sequence data to information about how and when genes are turned on, and about the proteins encoded by those genes. “The science behind genomics is changing weekly,” says cofounder Tania Broveak Hide. “A commercial software company, with your typical 12- to 18-month development cycle-I really don’t think that works for a fast-moving scientific discipline.”

Broveak Hide and her husband Winston Hide-the University of the Western Cape bioinformaticist with whom she cofounded the company in 1997-reached that conclusion after first selling proprietary software-and after their own programmers suggested that open-source development would yield better software faster. “I think it’ll make a huge difference for the scientific discoveries,” says Broveak Hide. “If we can push out better technology to the pharmaceutical companies, they’re going to be able to make their discoveries faster.”

Though others have yet to follow Electric Genetics’ lead, industry observers say open-source development will be critical to improving the quality of bioinformatics software and, ultimately, biomedical research.

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