Category Archives: bioinformatics

Data corruption using Excel: 12+ years and counting

Why, it seems like only 12 years since we read Mistaken Identifiers: Gene name errors can be introduced inadvertently when using Excel in bioinformatics.

And can it really be 4 years since we reviewed the topic of gene name corruption in Gene name errors and Excel: lessons not learned?

Well, here we are again in 2016 with Gene name errors are widespread in the scientific literature. This study examined 35 175 supplementary Excel data files from 3 597 published articles. Simple yet clever, isn’t it. I bet you wish you’d thought of doing that. I do. The conclusion: about 20% of the articles have associated data files in which gene names have been corrupted by Excel.

What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.

We tell you not to use Excel. You counter with a host of reasons why you have to use Excel. None of them are good reasons. I don’t know what else to say. Except to reiterate that probably 80% or more of the data analyst’s time is spent on data cleaning and a good proportion of the dirt arises from avoidable errors.

Variants + Spark = VariantSpark

Just a short note to alert you to a publication with my name on it. Great work by lead author and former colleague Aidan; I just did “the Gephi stuff”. If you’re interested in bioinformatics applications of Apache Spark, take a look at:

VariantSpark: population scale clustering of genotype information

Happy to report it is open access.

Virus hosts from NCBI taxonomy: now at Github

After my previous post on extracting virus hosts from NCBI Taxonomy web pages, Pierre wrote:

An excellent idea and here’s my first attempt.

Here’s a count of hosts. By the way NCBI, it’s environment.

cut -f4 virus_host.tsv | sort | uniq -c

    283 algae
    114 archaea
   4509 bacteria
      8 diatom
     51 enviroment
    267 fungi
      1 fungi| plants| invertebrates
      4 human
    761 invertebrates
    181 invertebrates| plants
      7 invertebrates| vertebrates
   3979 plants
    102 protozoa
   6834 vertebrates
 115052 vertebrates| human
     43 vertebrates| human  stool
    225 vertebrates| invertebrates
    656 vertebrates| invertebrates| human

Virus hosts from NCBI Taxonomy web pages

A Biostars question asks whether the information about virus host on web pages like this one can be retrieved using Entrez Utilities.

Pretty sure that the answer is no, unfortunately. Sometimes there’s no option but to scrape the web page, in the knowledge that this approach may break at any time. Here’s some very rough and ready Ruby code without tests or user input checks. It takes the taxonomy UID and returns the host, if there is one. No guarantees now or in the future!


require 'nokogiri'
require 'open-uri'

def get_host(uid)
	url   = "" + uid.to_s
	doc   = Nokogiri::HTML.parse(open(url).read)
	data  = doc.xpath("//td").collect { |x| x.inner_html.split("<br>") }.flatten
	data.each do |e|
		puts $1 if e =~ /Host:\s+<\/em>(.*?)$/


Save as taxhost.rb and supply the UID as first argument. Note: I chose 12345 off the top of my head, imagining that it was unlikely to be a virus and would make a good negative test. Turns out to be a phage!

$ ruby taxhost.rb 12249
$ ruby taxhost.rb 12721
$ ruby taxhost.rb 11709
vertebrates| human
$ ruby taxhost.rb 12345

Analysis of gene expression timecourse data using maSigPro

ANXA11 expression in human smooth muscle aortic cells post-ILb1 exposure

ANXA11 expression in human smooth muscle aortic cells post-ILb1 exposure

About a year ago, I did a little work on a very interesting project which was trying to identify blood-based biomarkers for the early detection of stroke. The data included gene expression measurements using microarrays at various time points after the onset of ischemia (reduced blood supply). I had not worked with timecourse data before, so I went looking for methods and found a Bioconductor package, maSigPro, which did exactly what I was looking for. In combination with ggplot2, it generated some very attractive and informative plots of gene expression over time.

I was very impressed by maSigPro and meant to get around to writing a short guide showing how to use it. So I did finally, using RMarkdown to create the document and here it is. The document also illustrates how to retrieve datasets from GEO using GEOquery and annotate microarray probesets using biomaRt. Hopefully it’s useful to some of you.

I’ll probably do more of this in the future, since publishing RMarkdown to RPubs is far easier than copying, pasting and formatting at WordPress.

Searching for the Steamer retroelement in the ocean metagenome

Location of BLAST (tblastn) hits Mya arenaria GagPol (AIE48224.1) vs GOS contigs

Location of BLAST (tblastn) hits Mya arenaria GagPol (AIE48224.1) vs GOS contigs

Last week, I was listening to episode 337 of the podcast This Week in Virology. It concerned a retrovirus-like sequence element named Steamer, which is associated with a transmissible leukaemia in soft shell clams.

At one point the host and guests discussed the idea of searching for Steamer-like sequences in the data from ocean metagenomics projects, such as the Global Ocean Sampling expedition. Sounds like fun. So I made an initial attempt, using R/ggplot2 to visualise the results.

To make a long story short: the initial BLAST results are not super-convincing, the visualisation could use some work (click image, right, for larger version) and the code/data are all public at Github, summarised in this report. It made for a fun, relatively-quick side project.

Some basics of biomaRt

One of the commonest bioinformatics questions, at Biostars and elsewhere, takes the form: “I have a list of identifiers (X); I want to relate them to a second set of identifiers (Y)”. HGNC gene symbols to Ensembl Gene IDs, for example.

When this occurs I have been known to tweet “the answer is BioMart” (there are often other solutions too) and I’ve written a couple of blog posts about the R package biomaRt in the past. However, I’ve realised that we need to take a step back and ask some basic questions that new users might have. How do I find what marts and datasets are available? How do I know what attributes and filters to use? How do I specify different genome build versions?
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Exploring the NCBI taxonomy database using Entrez Direct

I’ve been meaning to write about Entrez Direct, henceforth called edirect, for some time. This tweet provided me with an excuse:

This post is not strictly the answer to that question. Instead we’ll ask: which parent IDs of records for insects in the NCBI Taxonomy database have the most species IDs?
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Please read “It’s time to reboot bioinformatics education”

I guess I’ve been around bioinformatics for the best part of 15 years. In that time, I’ve seen almost no improvement in the way biologists handle and use data. If anything I’ve seen a decline, perhaps because the data have become larger and more complex with no improvement in the skills base.

It strikes me when I read questions at Biostars that the problem faced by many students and researchers is deeper than “not knowing what to do.” It’s having no idea how to figure out what they need to know in order to do what they want to do. In essence, this is about how to get people into a problem-solving mindset so as they’re aware, for example that:

  • it’s extremely unlikely that you are the first person to encounter this problem
  • it’s likely that the solution is documented somewhere
  • effective search will lead you to a solution even if you don’t fully understand it at first
  • the tool(s) that you know are not necessarily the right ones for the job (and Excel is never the right tool for the job)
  • implementing the solution may require that you (shudder) learn new skills
  • time spent on those skills now is almost certainly time saved later because…
  • …with a very little self-education in programming, tasks that took hours or days can be automated and take seconds or minutes

It’s good (and bad) to know that these issues are not confined to Australian researchers: here is It’s time to reboot bioinformatics education by Todd Harris. It is excellent and you should go and read it as soon as possible.