Current research in the biosciences depends heavily on the effective exploitation of huge amounts of data. These are in disparate formats, remotely dispersed, and based on the different vocabularies of various disciplines. Furthermore, data are often stored or distributed using formats that leave implicit many important features relating to the structure and semantics of the data. Conceptual data modelling involves the development of implementation independent models that capture and make explicit the principal structural properties of data. Entities such as a biopolymer or a reaction, and their relations, eg catalyses, can be formalised using a conceptual data model. Conceptual models are implementation-independent and can be transformed in systematic ways for implementation using different platforms, eg traditional database management systems. This paper describes the basics of the most widely used conceptual modelling notations, the ER (entity–relationship) model and the class diagrams of the UML (unified modelling language), and illustrates their use through several examples from bioinformatics. In particular, models are presented for protein structures and motifs, and for genomic sequences.