There is an astoundingly popular word game in which the player gets six tries to guess the word of the day, which has been pre-drawn from a list of five-letter words. The only skills one needs are the ability to recognize the alphabet and basic English-language spelling ability. My sisters and I play every day and compare how many tries it takes each of us to come up with the answer. It’s fun, challenging, and easy at the same time, and it gives us a quick way to share time together.
Today’s answer got me thinking (no spoiler alerts here!), what words describe NLM, its mission, and its impact? Let me share a few with you:
Health, that state of optimal well-being for all, is the North Star of all we do here at the National Institutes of Health. NIH’s motto is “Turning Discovery Into Health,” and NLM’s job is to turn information into discovery. The literature collected by NLM provides rich descriptions that help scientists and clinicians understand health and illness, discover new therapies, and relay patients’ experience. In fact, NLM has played an important role in almost every biomedical and clinical discovery of the past 50 years, each of which fosters the world’s understanding of health.
The cornerstone of our great national library is the provision of high-quality, trusted resources to the scientific community and general public. We imbue trust in our resources by following important principles of libraries, including collecting widely from literature resources recognized for meeting standards of scientific communication. We provide documentation and publicly available standard practices and policies. Our work is overseen by an NLM Board of Regents as well as by NIH leadership. These checks and balances help us accommodate a body of scientific resources that are congruent with the scientific and clinical knowledge at the time they are collected and reflective of diverse viewpoints and knowledge maturation.
NLM serves science and society by collecting, curating, and connecting all types of scientific communication artifacts and making these accessible to the public. Our biomedical literature resources are open to the world, presenting almost 35 million citations, close to 8.5 million machine- and human-readable full-text articles, and over 1,000 consumer-level health information topics. We provide specialized genomic data resources that help scientists discover the origins of life for many species. By linking the genomic data with the literature, NLM can help clinicians make decisions about how to treat complex illnesses that arise from genetic anomalies.
Biologists use laboratory procedures to distill the genetic material out of samples collected from humans, animals, and other types of matter like wastewater and then compare the sampled genetic material to other known records of genetic materials. Using this process, scientists align and compare one set of proteins gleaned from their experiments to others stored in our genomic repositories to detect genetic anomalies or determine if a discovered sequence is actually a new organism or a variant of a known species. Researchers “align” this newly acquired genetic structure with known structures. But we have millions of records of genetic samples, so this process can be time consuming. However, NLM has built the tool to blast through this alignment challenge!
The Basic Local Alignment Search Tool (BLAST) is an algorithm and program developed by NLM staff at our National Center for Biotechnology Information that finds regions of similarities between genetic sequences. The program compares nucleotide or protein sequences to reference sequence databases and calculates the statistical significance of any matches. BLAST helps scientists understand functional and evolutionary relationships between sequences, and it can also be used to identify members of gene families.
It actually takes more than a few five-letter words to describe what NLM does and what it means to science and society. Nonetheless, it was quite fun to wordplay NLM!
Dr. Brennan is the Director of the NIH National Library of Medicine, a leader in biomedical informatics and computational health data science research and the world’s largest biomedical library. Under her leadership, NLM has grown its intramural and extramural research enterprise, extended stakeholders’ access to credible and reliable health information, and acquired and preserved biomedical literature using cutting-edge digital research and outreach. Read more about Dr. Brennan.