Bioinformatician’s Pocket Reference !!

It is amusing how the brain of bioinformaticians work! Learning a new programming language for days feels so much of fun that making 5-minute discussion with neighbors (unless under special circumstances!) in our own mother-tongue. Today every bioinformatician keeps more than few languages and core IT toolkits on their plate. It has become mandatory to be able to mold different code snippets to build our own custom workflows, and thus keeping syntax at our fingertips has become essential.Although Google is the best way to get syntax problem solved, it is not a bad idea to keep reference sheets is our smartphones or stick out some printed sheets on the back of your door, in the old fashion way!!

1) Apache

2) Awk/Gwak

3) C

4) C++

5) Debian

6) Git


8) Java

  9) LaTeX

10) Mathematica

11) Matlab

12) MySQL

13) Perl

14) PHP

15) Python

16) R

17) Screen

18) Ubuntu

19) UNIX

20) Vim

These are handpicked reference sheets and you may encounter various other versions of these over Internet. If you find any version of reference sheet which is worth sharing, feel free to paste the link below.

At the end, I sincerely acknowledge the authors who have put their efforts in designing these informative reference sheets and made them available to us.

Flat files to Databases: For better Speed, Integration and Sharing

In an ordinary dictionary, a word can be sought in two different ways:
  1. Use the index and locate your word of choice, or,
  2. Start with the first word and keep going, one by one until you get there.
Obviously, the first way is the smart way. But, when it comes to a real-time organised data, most of us prefer the second way by choosing to read (line by line) and write into the flat files; even when the task is repetitive. Relational Database Management System (RDBMS), such as SQL (can be MySQL, OpenSQL, SQLite, PostgreSQL etc) are well suited for such tasks, yet they are under-implemented by many of the bioinformaticians. 


The use of databases can be intimidating without the formal training of database management, but this overall picture has changed to a great extent with the advent of Object Oriented Mapping (ORM) frameworks. ORMs provide language-specific, object-oriented access to databases. It brings the database handling in the comfort zone of object oriented language of user’s choice. For example, in order to access a sequence in the database, one can execute,
this will issue an SQL command at the back-end which is,
SELECT * FROM protein_sequences WHERE id=’P22725′
Another hectic of database handling is the server setup and maintenance issues. This can be reduced to a great extent by adopting a flexible, server-less and fully embed-able RDBMS, such as SQLite or BerkeleyDB. The rest of the operations of creating, modifying and deleting databases, tables and rows are well taken care by ORMs. The most popular ORMs include SQLObject (Python), DBIx::Class (Perl) and Hybernate (Java), which are open source and easily implementable.

In the modern era, the data is integrated from multiple sources and in complex fashions. This vast amount of information needs to be extracted in a reasonable way and channeled into the manageable and biologically meaningful outcomes in respect to medical applications. The database system offers efficient handling of the data and at the same time it delivers easy access via web applications, making it more suitable for scientific data sharing.

Python Modules: Expand your reach in Bioinformatics! (Part#2: Hybrid Programming)

A very classic question in bioinformatics is, which programming language is the best for a bioinformatician? Discussions like this never end with a conclusive answer. Interestingly, people find this question as a piece of cake and jump at it with whatever they have in their hands! The result is, you get a nice rainbow of choices, right from “C” to “PHP”!

Each programming language has its own perks and disadvantages. For example, “C” has an incredible speed in execution but it is equally code-intensive in writing even a simple program. Python and Perl on other hand make the same program code-lite but with a mediocre speed of execution. Apart from these performance issues, every language is blessed with a varying degree of third party modules/libraries.

Python has provided interfaces to many system calls and libraries, giving direct access to the shell of an operating system (modules like os, subprocess let you call unix commands directly from the python terminal). Python is also usable as an extension language for applications written in other languages that need easy-to-use scripting or automation interfaces. More than 15 coding projects have started to establish a platform where python can be integrated with other programming languages like C, Java, Perl, PHP, R, Fortran etc.

These hybrid platforms are either available as python modules which can easily be imported, like we do for general (numpy, maths, random etc) modules or accessible from a parent language (i.e. Jython, python implemented in Java)

A detailed list of these hybrid platforms are accessible from here.

Some fascinating platforms I couldn’t resist to mention here are:

  • elmer: Elmer allows developers to write code in Python and execute it in C or Tcl.
  • JPype: JPype allows python programs to fully access java class libraries.
  • PyPerlish: Allows the usage of perl idioms in python.
  • RPy: Simple and efficient access to R from python.

It is interesting to note that every platform mentioned here was somebody’s dream. Since shifting to a new language might deliver new exciting features but at the same time it takes away what you loved the most about the previous one. Following are the words from the creator of PyPerlish,

I’ve used perl for several years, and been very impressed with its ease of use. When you need to do something new, chances are there is an idiom which lets you do it in a few keystrokes. I didn’t want to lose that in moving to python. Somehow I wanted to get the benefits of perl’s idioms with the robust scalability and maintainability of python. So the idea is to emulate perl idioms, no matter how we implement the python code under the covers.”       — Harry George