BioMOO, the biologists’ (biohackers) virtual meeting place; in 1994

Posted by – July 2, 2009

Sometime in 1994, a university obtained some funding and set up BioMOO:

BioMOO is a virtual meeting place for biologists, connected to the Globewide Network Academy. The main physical part of BioMOO is located at the BioInformatics Unit of the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel.

BioMOO is a professional community of Biology researchers. It is a place to come meet colleagues in Biology studies and related fields and brainstorm, to hold colloquia and conferences, to explore the serious side of this new medium.

A “MOO” is a text-based chat system which was used for text-based adventure gaming or general text chat in the late 1980’s through the 1990’s (and relatively popular within the then-fledgling internet-gaming crowd). The BioMOO also had a web interface to the system. In BioMOO, both classes and scheduled meetings were held, where biologists and students would collaborate and discuss biology (from 940711-ACEDB-meeting):

The first Ecology and Evolution Journal Club on BioMOO
(bioinformatics.weizmann.ac.il 8888) was held on the 28th of January 1994,
at 2100 GMT. The paper for discussion was Reznick, D. and A. P. Yang
(1993). The influence of fluctuating resources on life history: patterns
of allocation and plasticity in female guppies. _Ecology_ 74(7):
2011-2019.

Over all, most people deemed the meeting to be quite successful, though
not without teething problems. Hopefully these will be fixed for the next
meeting. The meeting had many similarities with real-life meetings: The
discussion wandered, people were confused, people were misunderstood, but
some important issues were discussed, and many good points were made.

Thanks to Gustavo Glusman for establishing and running BioMOO, and the
Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel, for providing BioMOO with a place
to exist. Thanks also to those who participated, of course!

Those participating and/or present were:

Simon Blomberg, School of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney.
Shan D. Duncan, Indiana University - Bloomington
Bill Adlam, Oxford University (St. Peter's College)
Yoni Freedhoff, York University
John Foster Towell III, Ph.D., Affiliated (loosely): Northern Illinois
        University/Argonne National Labs
Gustavo Glusman, Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel
Alon Haberfeld, University of Guelph, Canada
Geordie Torr, James Cook University, Townsville, Australia
Andy Peters, Indiana University
Helen Rodd, York University
James Everett Ward, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA.
William J. Turner, Miami University
C. Alex Buerkle, Indiana University
Julio M. Arias, Univ. of Florida - Inst. of Food & Agric. Sciences - Citrus
        Res. & Educ. Ctr
Michael J. Coady, Universite de Montreal
Massimo Pigliucci, University of Connecticut
Victoria McGovern, UNCC
David W. Ranney, University of California, Santa Cruz
Mark MacKenzie, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Michael P. McKenna, Miles Biotechnology, Inc.
Paul Munro, University of Pittsburgh
L Ramakrishnan, The University of Texas at Austin
Mark VanderMuelen
Lev Yampolsky
Dann Paul Siems, University of Minnesota
and seven anonymous guests.

A transcript of the meeting follows. Speakers are not necessarily
identified by their real names (though some may be), but can choose
nicknames. Speakers who are not yet registered on BioMOO appear as
various kinds of “guest”. Keep in mind that this discussion was occurring
in real time, over the internet. The transcript should not be considered
a coherent, clearly thought out, document. Rather, it is the ideas and
opinions of a group of biologists thinking on their feet and coming to
grips with a new medium.

Transcript begins…

[…]

The nematode guest says, “Okay, this is brad again, I am now nematode-guest”
The nematode guest says, “I was answering your question about AGsDB”
Buttercup says, “Gustavo Thanks for reposting my question to Brad. ”
The nematode guest says, “I will try again”
The nematode guest says, “AGsDB is a multi-species database by design due to”
The nematode guest says, “Leland ellis of Keck”
The nematode guest says, “The idea is to use Anchor Loci to compare maps of different species e.g”
The nematode guest says, “Bos taurs and Homo Sapiens”
The nematode guest says, “I also have a multispecies database of ForestTrees”
The nematode guest says, “Are you folks biologists, or computerists (like myself)”
Gustavo is a biologist with computer knowledge..
JohnTowell is a computationally-oreinted biochemist
Buttercup says, “in the case of AGsDB there are 5 species. Are comparisons done 1:1 or with all 5 ata a time ?”
Dwight is a cell culturist with minimal computr
The nematode guest says, “The Idea of AGsDB is certainly to allow multiple species > 2, and ACEDB supports”
Buttercup says, “Buttercup is a biochemist who occassionaly dabbles in molecular biology and is computer literate”
The nematode guest says, “”
The nematode guest says, “Jaime P. has just arrived, he is looking over my shoulder as he”
The nematode guest says, “cannot get access to a computer right now”
The nematode guest says, “Do you have anything to say to him?”
Buttercup says, “Hi Jaime P. Greetings from down-under”
Gustavo waves at Jaime.
JohnTowell has a question
Buttercup says, “How is the conference going ? Getting them sorted out ?”
JohnTowell says, “If cross-referencing occurs when loading, then relationships have beenpre-determined. What about queries of the dbase of relationships that have yet to be discovered? i.e., how do you query the data base outside of hypertext linkages?”
The nematode guest says, “Okay, this is tough. First, the conference is going better than I expected”
The nematode guest says, “because there are more than 30 people here, we are making some progress and it is good to hav e both Durbin and Thierry-Mieg in one place …”
Buttercup says, “will the proceedings be published ? A summary on the Internet ? or on BioMOO?”
The nematode guest says, “The cross-referencing …, ACEDB has a query language which allows retrieval of informaion”
The nematode guest says, “from both inside the database and using windows , and a textual interface called TACE which allows querying without a windows interface (answer to proceedings coming next)”
JohnTowell . o O ( SQL? )
The nematode guest says, “Okay, we are preparing various documentation, in fact Jaime has just returned from a session on this topic, so I am inclined to let him talk, but he refuses to do so as he says he cannot type! (SQL question next)”
The nematode guest says, “ACEDB query language is not SQL, SQL will not map to the pseudo-object orientation of the Database”
The nematode guest says, “”
The nematode guest says, “Okay , do you all know that there is a documentation server on the WWW, and also”
The nematode guest says, “a FAQ –which I publish once a month –hold on for one minute and I will give you pointers”
The nematode guest says, “The WWW URL for the documentation is: http://probe.nalusda.gov:8000/”
Buttercup says, “I got mine from net.bio.net (134.172.2.69)”
The guest has arrived.
Buttercup says, “as file pub/BIOSCI/ACEDB/ACEDB.FAQ”
The amoeban guest materializes out of thin air.
The nematode guest says, “You can get the FAQ at rtfm.mit.edu anon ftp in pub/usenet/news.answers/acedb-faq”
The nematode guest says, “whew over to you guys”
The guest has disconnected.
Buttercup says, “No nematode, tell me more. I am interested in what it might do for me !”
The housekeeper arrives to remove the guest.
JohnTowell thinks the nematode has tired fingers
Buttercup says, “thinks you are correct”

BioMOO closed in 2001 with the following notice:

May 23rd, 2001 Due to sustained low levels of usage (i.e. barely anyone has really used BioMOO for years now), BioMOO will be shut down, to enable a better use for the resources it consumes nonetheless. The final shutdown is scheduled for the end of July 2001.

In the technology world, some R&D groups have been experimenting with online real-time collaboration in a graphical 3D environment. A project manager at Microsoft mentioned his project team uses OpenSIM, which is an open source version of a virtual world. A similar commercial systems (“world”) is Second Life. This project manager said he found it incredibly effective for team-building and day-to-day communication, especially when some team members work in remote offices. Though he is on the cutting edge of collaboration for 2009’s standards, and a technology group will probably always be ahead of most biology teams, it is nonetheless interesting that a forward-looking biology group offered a text-based virtual collaboration environment back in 1994 — even if it didn’t have continued use through today.  With the renewed interest in “garage biotech”, a virtual collaboration beyond simple email lists or web-based forums might be called for; a significant portion of biology is in the demonstration of wetlab technique, so a multimedia (video streaming) environment could be very useful.

References:
[1] BioMOO: Teaching biology in virtual reality, Clare Sansom, CUBE 97 Proceedings
[2] All BioMOO links are to archive.org’s web cache of 1994-1995.
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