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Journal: BMC bioinformatics


Figures of phylogenetic trees are widely used to illustrate the result of evolutionary analyses. However, one cannot easily extract a machine-readable representation from such images. Therefore, new software emerges that helps to preserve phylogenies digitally for future research.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Species, Horizontal gene transfer, Phylogenetic tree, Phylogenetics, Cladistics, Computational phylogenetics


User-centred design (UCD) is a type of user interface design in which the needs and desires of users are taken into account at each stage of the design process for a service or product; often for software applications and websites. Its goal is to facilitate the design of software that is both useful and easy to use. To achieve this, you must characterise users' requirements, design suitable interactions to meet their needs, and test your designs using prototypes and real life scenarios.For bioinformatics, there is little practical information available regarding how to carry out UCD in practice. To address this we describe a complete, multi-stage UCD process used for creating a new bioinformatics resource for integrating enzyme information, called the Enzyme Portal ( This freely-available service mines and displays data about proteins with enzymatic activity from public repositories via a single search, and includes biochemical reactions, biological pathways, small molecule chemistry, disease information, 3D protein structures and relevant scientific literature.We employed several UCD techniques, including: persona development, interviews, ‘canvas sort’ card sorting, user workflows, usability testing and others. Our hope is that this case study will motivate the reader to apply similar UCD approaches to their own software design for bioinformatics. Indeed, we found the benefits included more effective decision-making for design ideas and technologies; enhanced team-working and communication; cost effectiveness; and ultimately a service that more closely meets the needs of our target audience.

Concepts: Protein, Design, Graphic design, User interface, Usability, Experience design, Software design, Web design


BACKGROUND: Cloud computing provides an infrastructure that facilitates large scale computational analysis in a scalable, democratized fashion, However, in this context it is difficult to ensure sharing of an analysis environment and associated data in a scalable and precisely reproducible way. RESULTS: CloudMan ( enables individual researchers to easily deploy, customize, and share their entire cloud analysis environment, including data, tools, and configurations. CONCLUSIONS: With the enabled customization and sharing of instances, CloudMan can be used as a platform for collaboration. The presented solution improves accessibility of cloud resources, tools, and data to the level of an individual researcher and contributes toward reproducibility and transparency of research solutions.

Concepts: Scientific method, Research, Computer, Solution, Reproducibility, Cloud computing, Utility computing, Tool


As the volume, complexity and diversity of the information that scientists work with on a daily basis continues to rise, so too does the requirement for new analytic software. The analytic software must solve the dichotomy that exists between the need to allow for a high level of scientific reasoning, and the requirement to have an intuitive and easy to use tool which does not require specialist, and often arduous, training to use. Information visualization provides a solution to this problem, as it allows for direct manipulation and interaction with diverse and complex data. The challenge addressing bioinformatics researches is how to apply this knowledge to data sets that are continually growing in a field that is rapidly changing.

Concepts: Scientific method, Psychology, Bioinformatics, Genomics, Emergence, Logic, Problem solving, Functional genomics


BACKGROUND: Scientists rarely reuse expert knowledge of phylogeny, in spite of years of effort to assemble a great “Tree of Life” (ToL). A notable exception involves the use of Phylomatic, which provides tools to generate custom phylogenies from a large, pre-computed, expert phylogeny of plant taxa. This suggests great potential for a more generalized system that, starting with a query consisting of a list of any known species, would rectify non-standard names, identify expert phylogenies containing the implicated taxa, prune away unneeded parts, and supply branch lengths and annotations, resulting in a custom phylogeny suited to the user’s needs. Such a system could become a sustainable community resource if implemented as a distributed system of loosely coupled parts that interact through clearly defined interfaces. RESULTS: With the aim of building such a “phylotastic” system, the NESCent Hackathons, Interoperability, Phylogenies (HIP) working group recruited 2 dozen scientist-programmers to a weeklong programming hackathon in June 2012. During the hackathon (and a three-month follow-up period), 5 teams produced designs, implementations, documentation, presentations, and tests including: (1) a generalized scheme for integrating components; (2) proof-of-concept pruners and controllers; (3) a meta-API for taxonomic name resolution services; (4) a system for storing, finding, and retrieving phylogenies using semantic web technologies for data exchange, storage, and querying; (5) an innovative new service,, which synthesizes pre-computed, time-calibrated phylogenies to assign ages to nodes; and (6) demonstration projects. These outcomes are accessible via a public code repository (, a website (, and a server image. CONCLUSIONS: Approximately 9 person-months of effort (centered on a software development hackathon) resulted in the design and implementation of proof-of-concept software for 4 core phylotastic components, 3 controllers, and 3 end-user demonstration tools. While these products have substantial limitations, they suggest considerable potential for a distributed system that makes phylogenetic knowledge readily accessible in computable form. Widespread use of phylotastic systems will create an electronic marketplace for sharing phylogenetic knowledge that will spur innovation in other areas of the ToL enterprise, such as annotation of sources and methods and third-party methods of quality assessment.

Concepts: Phylogenetic nomenclature, Phylogenetic tree, Phylogenetics, Cladistics, Computational phylogenetics, Phylogenetic comparative methods, Semantic Web


BACKGROUND: MEDLINE®/PubMed® indexes over 20 million biomedical articles, providing curated annotation of contents using a controlled vocabulary known as Medical Subject Headings (MeSH). The MeSH vocabulary, developed over 50+ years, provides a broad coverage of topics across biomedical research. Distilling the essential biomedical themes for a topic of interest from the relevant literature is important to both understand the importance of related concepts and discover new relationships. RESULTS: We introduce a novel method for determining enriched curator-assigned MeSH annotations in a set of papers associated to a topic, such as a gene, an author or a disease. We generate MeSH Over-representation Profiles (MeSHOPs) to quantitatively summarize the annotations in a form convenient for further computational analysis and visualization. Based on a hyper geometric distribution of assigned terms, MeSHOPs statistically account for the prevalence of the associated biomedical annotation while highlighting unusually prevalent terms based on a specified background. MeSHOPs can be visualized using word clouds, providing a succinct quantitative graphical representation of the relative importance of terms. Using the publication dates of articles, MeSHOPs track changing patterns of annotation over time. Since MeSHOPs are quantitative vectors, MeSHOPs can be compared using standard techniques such as hierarchical clustering. The reliability of MeSHOP annotations is assessed based on the capacity to re-derive the subset of the Gene Ontology annotations with equivalent MeSH terms. CONCLUSIONS: MeSHOPs allows quantitative measurement of the degree of association between any entity and the annotated medical concepts, based directly on relevant primary literature. Comparison of MeSHOPs allows entities to be related based on shared medical themes in their literature. A web interface is provided for generating and visualizing MeSHOPs.

Concepts: Bioinformatics, Controlled vocabulary, Medical research, Mesh, Medical Subject Headings, GoPubMed


An incremental, loosely planned development approach is often used in bioinformatic studies when dealing with custom data analysis in a rapidly changing environment. Unfortunately, the lack of a rigorous software structuring can undermine the maintainability, communicability and replicability of the process. To ameliorate this problem we propose the Leaf system, the aim of which is to seamlessly introduce the pipeline formality on top of a dynamical development process with minimum overhead for the programmer, thus providing a simple layer of software structuring.

Concepts: Scientific method, Data, Philosophy of science, Computer, Computer program, Computer software, Pipeline transport


BACKGROUND: For shotgun mass spectrometry based proteomics the most computationally expensive step is in matching the spectra against an increasingly large database of sequences and their post-translational modifications with known masses. Each mass spectrometer can generate data at an astonishingly high rate, and the scope of what is searched for is continually increasing. Therefore solutions for improving our ability to perform these searches are needed. RESULTS: We present a sequence database search engine that is specifically designed to run efficiently on the Hadoop MapReduce distributed computing framework. The search engine implements the K-score algorithm, generating comparable output for the same input files as the original implementation. The scalability of the system is shown, and the architecture required for the development of such distributed processing is discussed. CONCLUSION: The software is scalable in its ability to handle a large peptide database, numerous modifications and large numbers of spectra. Performance scales with the number of processors in the cluster, allowing throughput to expand with the available resources.

Concepts: Mass spectrometry, Phosphorylation, Search engine optimization, Computer science, Matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization, Peer-to-peer, Hadoop, Distributed computing


BACKGROUND: RNA interference (RNAi) becomes an increasingly important and effective genetic tool to study the function of target genes by suppressing specific genes of interest. This system approach helps identify signaling pathways and cellular phase types by tracking intensity and/or morphological changes of cells. The traditional RNAi screening scheme, in which one siRNA is designed to knockdown one specific mRNA target, needs a large library of siRNAs and turns out to be time-consuming and expensive. RESULTS: In this paper, we propose a conceptual model, called compressed sensing RNAi (csRNAi), which employs the unique combination of group of small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) to knockdown a much larger size of genes. This strategy is based on the fact that one gene can be partially bound with several small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) and conversely, one siRNA can bind to a few genes with distinct binding affinity. This model constructs a multi-to-multi correspondence between siRNAs and their targets, with siRNAs much fewer than mRNA targets, compared with the conventional scheme. Mathematically this problem involves an underdetermined system of equations (linear or nonlinear), which is ill-posed in general. However, the recently developed compressed sensing (CS) theory can solve this problem. We present a mathematical model to describe the csRNAi system based on both CS theory and biological concerns. To build this model, we first search nucleotide motifs in a target gene set. Then we propose a machine learning based method to find the effective siRNAs with novel features, such as image features and speech features to describe an siRNA sequence. Numerical simulations show that we can reduce the siRNA library to one third of that in the conventional scheme. In addition, the features to describe siRNAs outperform the existing ones substantially. CONCLUSIONS: This csRNAi system is very promising in saving both time and cost for large-scale RNAi screening experiments which may benefit the biological research with respect to cellular processes and pathways.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Gene expression, Mathematics, RNA, Small interfering RNA, RNA interference


Reconstructing gene regulatory networks (GRNs) from expression data is one of the most important challenges in systems biology research. Many computational models and methods have been proposed to automate the process of network reconstruction. Inferring robust networks with desired behaviours remains challenging, however. This problem is related to network dynamics but has yet to be investigated using network modeling.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Gene expression, Evolution, Organism, Gene regulatory network, Networks