Reblogging 2006: Figuring out requirements for automated reasoning services for formal bio-ontologies

From the “10 years of keetblog – reblogging: 2006”: a preliminary post that led to the OWLED 2007 paper I co-authored with Marco Roos and Scott Marshall, when I was still predominantly into bio-ontologies and biological databases. The paper received quite a few citations, and a good ‘harvest’ from both OWLED’07 and co-located DL’07 participants on how those requirements may be met (described here). The original post: Figuring out requirements for automated reasoning services for formal bio-ontologies, from Dec 27, 2006.

What does the user want? There is a whole sub-discipline on requirements engineering, where researchers look into methodologies how one best can extract the users’ desires for a software application and organize the requirements according to type and priority. But what to do when users – in this case biologists and (mostly non-formal) bio-ontologies developers – neither do know clearly themselves what they want nor what type of automated reasoning is already ‘on offer’. Here, I’m making a start by briefly listing informally some of the desires & usages that I came across in the literature, picked up from conversations and further probing to disambiguate the (for a logician) vague descriptions, or bumped into myself; they are summarised at the end of this blog entry and update (d.d. 5-5-’07) described more comprehensively in [0].

Feel free to add your wishes & demands; it may even be fed back into current research like [1] or be supported already after all. (An alternative approach is describing ‘scenarios’ from which one can try to extract the required reasoning tasks; if you want to, you can add those as well.)

I. A fairly obvious use of automated reasoners such as Racer, Pellet and FaCT++ with ontologies is to let the software find errors (inconsistencies) in the representation of the knowledge or reality. This is particularly useful to ensure no ‘contradictory’ information remains in the ontology when an ontology gets too big for one person to comprehend and multiple people update an ontology. Also, it tends to facilitate learning how to formally represent something. Hence, the usage is to support the ontology development process.

But this is just the beginning: having a formal ontology gives you other nice options, or at least that is the dangling carrot on front of the developer’s nose.

II. One demonstration of the advantages of having a formal ontology, thus not merely a promise, is the classification of protein phosphatases by Wolstencroft et al. [9], where also some modest results were obtained in discovering novel information about those phosphatases that was entailed in the extant information but hitherto unknown. Bandini and Mosca [2] pushed a closely related idea one step further in another direction. To constrain the search space of candidate rubber molecules for tire production, they defined the constraints (properties) all types of molecules for tires must satisfy in the TBox, treated each candidate molecule as an instance in the ABox, and performed model checking on the knowledgebase: each instance inconsistent w.r.t. the TBox was thrown out of the pool of candidate-molecules. Overall, the formal representation with model checking achieved a considerable reduction in resource usage of the system and reduced the amount of costly wet-lab research. Hence, the usages are classification and model checking.[i]

III. Whereas the former includes usage of particular instances for the reasoning scenarios, another on is to stay at the type level and, in particular, relations between the types (classes in the class hierarchy in Protégé). In short, some users want to discover new or missing relations. What type of relation is not always exactly clear, but I assume for now that any non-isA relation would do. For instance, Roos et al. [8] would like to do that for the subject domain of histones; with or without instance-level data. The former, using instance-level data, resembles the reverse engineering option in VisioModeler, which takes a physical database schema and the data stored in the tables and computes the likely entities, relations, and constraints at the level of a conceptual model (in casu, ORM). Mungall [7] wants to “Check for inconsistent or missing relationships” and “Automatically assign relationships for new terms”. How can one find what is not there but ought to be in the ontology? An automated reasoner is not an oracle. I will split up this topic into two aspects. First, one can derive relations among types, meaning that some ontology developer has declared several types, relations, other properties, but not everything. The reasoner then, takes the declared knowledge and can return relations that are logically implied by the formal ontology. From a user perspective, such a derived relation may be perceived as a ‘new’ or ‘missing’ relation – but it did not fall out of the sky because the relation was already entailed in the ontology (or: you did not realize you knew it already). Second, another notion of ‘missing relations’: e.g. there are 17 types of macrophages (types of cell) in the FMA, which must be part of, contained in, or located in something. If you query the FMA through OQAFMA, it gives as answer that the hepatic macrophage is part of the liver [5]. An informed user knows it cannot be the case that the other macrophages are not part of anything. Then, the ontology developer may want to fill this gap – adding the ‘missing’ relations – by further developing those cell-level sections of the ontology. Note that the reasoner will not second-guess you by asking “do you want more things there?”; it uses the Open World Assumption, i.e. that there always may be more than actually represented on the ontology (and absence of some piece of information is not negation of that piece). Thus, the requirements are to have some way of dealing with `gaps’ in an ontology, to support computing derived relations entailed in a logical theory, and, third, deriving type-level relations based on instance-level data. The second one is already supported, the first one only with intervention by an informed user, and the third one might, to some extent.

Now three shorter points, either because there is even less material or there is too much to stuff it in this blog entry.

IV. A ‘this would be nice’ suggestion from Christina Hettne, among others, concerns the desire to compare pathways, which, in its simplest form, amounts to checking for sub-graph isomorphisms. More generally, one could – or should be able to – treat an ontology as a scientific theory [6] and compare competing explanations of some natural phenomenon (provided both are represented formally). Thus, we have a requirement for comparison of two ontologies, not with the aim of doing meaning negotiation and/or merging them, but where the discrepancies themselves are the fun part. This indicates that dealing with ‘errors’ that a reasoner spits out could use an upgrade toward user-friendliness.

V. Reasoning with parthood and parthood-like relations in bio-ontologies are on a par with importance of the subsumption relation. Donnelly [3] and Keet [4], among many, would like to use parthood and parthood-like relations for reasoning, covering more than transitivity alone. Generalizing a bit, we have another requirement: reasoning with properties (relations) and hierarchies of relations, focusing first on the part-whole relation. What reasoning services are required exactly, be it for parthood or any other relation, deserves an entry on its own.

VI. And whatnot? For instance, linking up different ontologies that each reside at their own level of granularity, yet have enabled to perform ‘granular cross-ontology queries’, or infer locations of diseases based on combining an anatomy ontology with a disease taxonomy, hence, reasoning over linked ontologies. This needs to be written down in more detail, and may be covered at least partially with point two in item III.

Summarizing, we have to following requirements for automated reasoning services, in random order w.r.t. importance:

  • Support in the ontology development process;
  • Classification;
  • Model checking;
  • Finding ‘gaps’ in the content of an ontology;
  • Computing derived relations at the type level;
  • Deriving type-level relations from instance-level data;
  • Comparison of two ontologies ([logical] theories);
  • Reasoning with a plethora of parthood and parthood-like relations;
  • Using (including finding inconsistencies in) a hierarchy of relations in conjunction with the class hierarchy;
  • Reasoning across linked ontologies;

I doubt this is an exhaustive list, and expect to add more requirements & desires soon. They also have to be specified more precisely than explained briefly above and the solutions to meet these requirements need to be elaborated upon as well.

[0] Keet, C.M., Roos, M., Marshall, M.S. A survey of requirements for automated reasoning services for bio-ontologies in OWL. Third international Workshop OWL: Experiences and Directions (OWLED 2007), 6-7 June 2007, Innsbruck, Austria. CEUR-WS.

[1] European FP6 FET Project “Thinking ONtologiES (TONES)”. (UDATE 29-7-2015: URL defunct by now)

[2] Bandini, S., Mosca, A. Mereological knowledge representation for the chemical formulation. 2nd Workshop on Formal Ontologies Meets Industry 2006 (FOMI2006), 14-15 December 2006, Trento, Italy. pp55-69.

[3] Donnelly, M., Bittner, T. and Rosse, C. A Formal Theory for Spatial Representation and Reasoning in Biomedical Ontologies. Artificial Intelligence in Medicine, 2006, 36(1):1-27.

Keet, C.M. Part-whole relations in Object-Role Models. 2nd International Workshop on Object-Role Modelling (ORM 2006), Montpellier, France, Nov 2-3, 2006. In: OTM Workshops 2006. Meersman, R., Tari, Z., Herrero., P. et al. (Eds.), LNCS 4278. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2006. pp1116-1127.

Keet, C.M. Granular information retrieval from the Gene Ontology and from the Foundational Model of Anatomy with OQAFMA. KRDB Research Centre Technical Report KRDB06-1, Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, 6 April 2006. 19p.

[6] Keet, C.M.
Factors affecting ontology development in ecology. Data Integration in the Life Sciences 2005 (DILS2005), Ludaescher, B, Raschid, L. (eds.). San Diego, USA, 20-22 July 2005. Lecture Notes in Bioinformatics 3615, Springer Verlag, 2005. pp46-62.

[7] Mungall, C.J. Obol: integrating language and meaning in bio-ontologies. Comparative and Functional Genomics, 2004, 5(6-7):509-520. (UPDATE: link rot as well; a freely accessible veriosn is available at:

[8] Roos, M., Rauwerda, H., Marshall, M.S., Post, L., Inda, M., Henkel, C., Breit, T. Towards a virtual laboratory for integrative bioinformatics research. CSBio Reader: Extended abstracts of “CS & IT with/for Biology” Seminar Series 2005. Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, 2005. pp18-25.

Wolstencroft, K., Lord, P., Tabernero, L., Brass, A., Stevens, R. Using ontology reasoning to classify protein phosphatases [abstract]. 8th Annual Bio-Ontologies Meeting; 2005 24 June; Detroit, United States of America.

[i] Observe another aspect regarding model checking where the automated reasoner checks if the theory is satisfiable, or: given your ontology, if there is/can be a combination of instances such that all the declared knowledge in the ontology holds (is true), which is called a `model’ (as well, like so many things). That an ontology is satisfiable does not imply it only has models as intended by you, i.e. there is a difference between ‘all models’ and ‘all intended models’. If an ontology is satisfiable it means that it is logically possible that each type can be instantiated without running into inconsistencies; it neither demonstrates that one can indeed find in reality the real-world versions of those represented entities nor if there is one-and-only-one model that actually matches exactly the data you may want to have linked to & checked against the ontology.

Book chapter on conceptual data modeling for biology published

Just a quick note that my book chapter on “Ontology-driven formal conceptual data modeling for biological data analysis” finally has been published in the Biological Knowledge Discovery Handbook: Preprocessing, Mining and Postprocessing of Biological Data (edited by Mourad Elloumi and Albert Y. Zomaya). A summary of the chapter’s contents is described in an earlier blog post from little over two years ago, and I’ve put the preprint online.

The whole book is an impressive 1192 pages consisting of 48 chapters of about 25 pages each, which are grouped into three main sections. The first section, Biological data pre-processing, has four parts: biological data management, biological data modeling (which includes my chapter), biological feature extraction, and biological feature selection. The second section, biological data mining, has six parts: Regression Analysis of Biological Data, Biological Data Clustering, Biological Data Classification, Association Rules Learning from Biological Data, Text Mining and Application to Biological Data, and High-Performance Computing for Biological Data Mining. The third section, biological data post-processing, has only one part: biological knowledge integration and visualization. (check the detailed table of contents). Happy reading!

The DiDOn method to develop bio-ontologies from semi-structured life science diagrams

It is well-known among (bio-)ontology developers that ontology development is a resource-consuming task (see [1] for data backing up this claim). Several approaches and tools do exists that speed up the time-consuming efforts of bottom-up ontology development, most notably natural language processing and database reverse engineering. They are generic and the technologies have been proposed from a computing angle, and are therefore noisy and/or contain many heuristics to make them fit for bio-ontology development. Yet, the most obvious one from a domain expert perspective is unexplored: the abundant diagrams in the sciences that function as existing/’legacy’ knowledge representation of the subject domain. So, how can one use them to develop domain ontologies?

The new DiDOn procedure—from Diagram to Domain Ontology—can speed up and simplify bio-ontology development by exploiting the knowledge represented in such semi-structured bio-diagrams. It does this by means of extracting explicit and implicit knowledge, preserving most of the subject domain semantics, and making formalisation decisions explicit, so that the process is done in a clear, traceable, and reproducible way.

DiDOn is a detailed, micro-level, procedure to formalise those diagrams in a logic of choice; it provides migration paths into OBO, SKOS, OWL and some arbitrary FOL, and guidelines which axioms, and how, have to be added to the bio-ontology. It also uses a foundational ontology so as to obtain more precise and interoperable subject domain semantics than otherwise would have been possible with syntactic transformations alone. (Choosing an appropriate foundational ontology is a separate topic and can be done wit, e.g., ONSET.)

The paper describing the rationale and details, Transforming semi-structured life science diagrams into meaningful domain ontologies with DiDOn [2], has just been accepted at the Journal of Biomedical Informatics. They require a graphical abstract, so here it goes:

DiDOn consists of two principal steps: (1) formalising the ‘icon vocabulary’ of a bio-drawing tool, which then functions as a seed ontology, and (2) populating the seed ontology by processing the actual diagrams. The algorithm in the second step is informed by the formalisation decisions taken in the first step. Such decisions include, among others, the representation language and how to represent the diagram’s n-aries (with n≥2, such as choosing between n-aries as relationship or reified as classes).

In addition to the presentation of DiDOn, the paper contains a detailed application of it with Pathway Studio as case study.

The neatly formatted paper is behind a paywall for those with no or limited access to Elsevier’s journals, but the accepted manuscript is openly accessible from my home page.


[1] Simperl, E., Mochol, M., Bürger, T. Achieving maturity: the state of practice in ontology engineering in 2009. International Journal of Computer Science and Applications, 2010, 7(1):45-65.

[2] Keet, C.M. Transforming semi-structured life science diagrams into meaningful domain ontologies with DiDOn. Journal of Biomedical Informatics. In print. DOI:

Book chapter on conceptual data modelling for biological data

My invited book chapter, entitled “Ontology-driven formal conceptual data modeling for biological data analysis” [1], recently got accepted for publication in the Biological Knowledge Discovery Handbook: Preprocessing, Mining and Postprocessing of Biological Data, edited by Mourad Elloumi and Albert Y. Zomaya, and is scheduled for printing by Wiley early 2012.

All this started off with my BSc(Hons) in IT & Computing thesis back in 2003 and my first paper about the trials and tribulations of conceptual data modelling for bio-databases [2] (which is definitely not well-written, but has some valid points and has been cited a bit). In the meantime, much progress has been made on the topic, and I’ve learned, researched, and published a few things about it, too. So, what is the chapter about?

The main aspect is the ‘conceptual data modelling’ with EER, ORM, and UML Class Diagrams, i.e., concerning implementation-independent representations of the data to be managed for a specific application (hence, not ontologies for application-independence).

The adjective ‘formal’ is to point out that the conceptual modeling is not just about drawing boxes, roundtangles, and lines with some adornments, but there is a formal, logic-based, foundation. This is achieved with the formally defined CMcom conceptual data modeling language, which has the greatest common denominator between ORM, EER, and UML Class Diagrams. CMcom has, on the one hand, a mapping the Description Logic language DLRifd and, on the other hand, mappings to the icons in the diagrammatic languages. The nice aspect of this it that, at least in theory and to some extent in practice as well, one can subject it to automated reasoning to check consistency of the classes, of the whole conceptual data model, and derive implicit constraints (an example) or use it in ontology-based data access (an example and some slides on ‘COMODA’ [COnceptual MOdel-based Data Access], tailored to ORM and the horizontal gene transfer database as example).

Then there is the ‘ontology-driven’ component: Ontology and ontologies can aid in conceptual data modeling by providing solution to recurring modeling problems, an ontology can be used to generate several conceptual data models, and one can integrate (a section of) an ontology into a conceptual data model that is subsequently converted into data in database tables.

Last, but not least, it focuses on ‘biological data analysis’. A non-(biologist or bioinformatician) might be inclined to say that should not matter, but it does. Biological information is not as trivial as the typical database design toy examples like “Student is enrolled in Course”, but one has to dig deeper and figure out how to represent, e.g., catalysis, pathway information, the ecological niche. Moreover, it requires an answer to ‘which language features are ‘essential’ for the conceptual data modeling language?’ and if it isn’t included yet, how do we get it in? Some of such important features are n-aries (n>2) and the temporal dimension. The paper includes a proposal for more precisely representing catalysis, informed by ontology (mainly thanks to making the distinction between the role and its bearer), and shows how certain temporal information can be captured, which is illustrated by enhancing the model for SARS viral infection, among other examples.

The paper is not online yet, but I did put together some slides for the presentation at MAIS’11 reported on earlier, which might serve as a sneak preview of the 25-page book chapter, or you can contact me for the CRC.


[1] Keet, C.M. Ontology-driven formal conceptual data modeling for biological data analysis. In: Biological Knowledge Discovery Handbook: Preprocessing, Mining and Postprocessing of Biological Data. Mourad Elloumi and Albert Y. Zomaya (Eds.). Wiley (in print).

[2] Keet, C.M. Biological data and conceptual modelling methods. Journal of Conceptual Modeling, Issue 29, October 2003.

Progress on the EnvO at the Dagstuhl workshop

Over the course of the 4,5 days packed together at the beautiful and pleasant ambience of Schloss Dagstul, the fourth Environment Ontology workshop has been productive, and a properly referenceable paper outlining details and decisions will follow. Here I will limit myself to mentioning some of the outcomes and issues that passed the revue.

Group photo of most of the participants at the EnvO Workshop at Dagstuhl

After presentations by all attendees, a long list of discussion themes was drawn up, which we managed to discuss and agree upon to a large extent. The preliminary notes and keywords are jotted down and put on the EnvO wiki dedicated to the workshop.

Focussing first on the content topics, which took up the lion’s share of the workshop’s time, significant advances have been made in two main areas. First, we have sorted out the Food branch in the ontology, which has been moved as Food product under Environmental material and then Anthropogenic environmental material, and the kind and order of differentia have been settled, using food source and processing method as the major axes. Second, the Biome branch will be refined in two directions, regarding (i) the ecosystems at different scales and the removal of the species-centred notion of habitat to reflect better the notion of environment and (ii) work toward inclusion of the aspect of n-dimensional hypervolume of an environment (both the conditions / parameters / variables and the characterization of a particular type of environment using such conditions, analogous to the hypervolumes of an ecological niche so that EnvO can be used better for annotation and analysis of environmental data). Other content-related topics concerned GPS coordinates, hydrographic features, and the commitment to BFO and the RO for top-level categories and relations. You can browse through the preliminary changes in the envo-edit version of the ontology, which is a working version that changes daily (i.e., not an officially released one).

There was some discussion—insufficient, I think—and recurring comments and suggestions on how to represent the knowledge in the ontology and, with that, the ontology language and modelling guidelines. Some favour bare single-inheritance trees for appealing philosophical motivations. The first problematic case, however, was brought forward by David Mark, who had compelling arguments for multiple inheritance with his example of how to represent Wadi, and soon more followed with terms such as Smoked sausage (having as parents the source and processing method) and many more in the food branch. Some others preferred lattices or a more common knowledge representation language—both are ways to handle more neatly the properties/qualities with respect to the usage of properties and the property inheritance by sub-universals from its parent. Currently, the EnvO is represented in OBO and modelling the knowledge does not follow the KR approach of declaring properties of some universal (/concept/class) and availing of property inheritance, so that one ends up having to make multiple trees and then adding ‘cross-products’ between the trees. Hence, and using intuitive labels merely for human readability here, Smoked sausage either will have two parents, amounting to—in the end where the branching started—\forall x (SmokedSausage(x) \equiv AnimalFoodProduct(x) \land ProcessingMethod(x)) (which is ontologically incorrect because a smoked sausage is not way of processing) or, if done with a ‘cross-product’ and a new relation (hasQuality ), then the resulting computation will have something alike \forall x \exists y (SmokedSausage(x) \equiv Sausage(x) \land hasQuality(x,y) \land Smoking(y)) instead of having declared directly in the ontology proper, say, \forall x \exists y (SmokedSausage(x) \equiv Sausage(x) \land HasProcessingMethod(x,y) \land Smoking(y)) . The latter option has the advantages that it makes it easier to add, say, Fermented smoked sausage or Cooked smoked sausage as a sausage that has the two properties of being [fermented/cooked] and being smoked, and that one can avail of automated reasoners to classify the taxonomy. Either way, the details are being worked on. The ontology language and the choice for one or the other—whichever it may be—ought not to get in the way of developing an ontology, but, generally, it does so both regarding underlying commitment that the language adheres to and any implicit or explicit workaround in the modelling stage that to some extent make up for a language’s limitations.

On a lighter note, we had an excursion to Trier together with the cognitive robotics people (from a parallel seminar at Dagstuhl) on Wednesday afternoon. Starting from the UNESCO’s world heritage monument Porta Nigra and the nearby birthplace of Karl Marx, we had a guided tour through the city centre with its mixture of architectural styles and rich history, which was even more pleasant with the spring-like weather. Afterwards, we went to relax at the wine tasting event at a nearby winery, where the owners provided information about the 6 different Rieslings we tried.

Extension to the Aula Palatina (Constantine's Basilica) in Trier

Extension to the Aula Palatina (Constantine's Basilica) in Trier

Section of the Porta Nigra, Trier

Section of the Porta Nigra, Trier

72010 SemWebTech lecture 8: SWT for HCLS background and data integration

After the ontology languages and general aspects of ontology engineering, we now will delve into one specific application area: SWT for health care and life sciences. Its frontrunners in bioinformatics were adopters of some of the Semantic Web ideas even before Berners-Lee, Hendler, and Lassila wrote their Scientific American paper in 2001, even though they did not formulate their needs and intentions in the same terminology: they did want to have shared, controlled vocabularies with the same syntax, to facilitate data integration—or at least interoperability—across Web-accessible databases, have a common space for identifiers, it needing to be a dynamic, changing system, to organize and query incomplete biological knowledge, and, albeit not stated explicitly, it all still needed to be highly scalable [1].

Bioinformaticians and domain experts in genomics already organized themselves together in the Gene Ontology Consortium, which was set up officially in 1998 to realize a solution for these requirements. The results exceeded anyone’s expectations in its success for a range of reasons. Many tools for the Gene Ontology (GO) and its common KR format, .obo, have been developed, and other research groups adopted the approach to develop controlled vocabularies either by extending the GO, e.g., rice traits, or adding their own subject domain, such as zebrafish anatomy and mouse developmental stages. This proliferation, as well as the OWL development and standardization process that was going on at about the same time, pushed the goal posts further: new expectations were put on the GO and its siblings and on their tools, and the proliferation had become a bit too wieldy to keep a good overview what was going on and how those ontologies would be put together. Put differently, some people noticed the inferencing possibilities that can be obtained from moving from obo to OWL and others thought that some coordination among all those obo bio-ontologies would be advantageous given that post-hoc integration of ontologies of related and overlapping subject domains is not easy. Thus came into being the OBO Foundry to solve such issues, proposing a methodology for coordinated evolution of ontologies to support biomedical data integration [2].

People in related disciplines, such as ecology, have taken on board experiences of these very early adopters, and instead decided to jump on board after the OWL standardization. They, however, were not only motivated by data(base) integration. Referring to Madin et al’s paper [3] again, I highlight three points they made: “terminological ambiguity slows scientific progress, leads to redundant research efforts, and ultimately impedes advances towards a unified foundation for ecological science”, i.e., identification of some serious problems they have in ecological research; “Formal ontologies provide a mechanism to address the drawbacks of terminological ambiguity in ecology”, i.e., what they expect that ontologies will solve for them (disambiguation); and “and fill an important gap in the management of ecological data by facilitating powerful data discovery based on rigorously defined, scientifically meaningful terms”, i.e., for what purpose they want to use ontologies and any associated computation (discovery). That is, ontologies not as a—one of many possible—tool in the engineering/infrastructure means, but as a required part of a method in the scientific investigation that aims to discover new information and knowledge about nature (i.e., in answering the who, what, where, when, and how things are the way they are in nature).

What has all this to do with actual Semantic Web technologies? On the one hand, there are multiple data integration approaches and tools that have been, and are being, tried out by the domain experts, bioinformaticians, and interdisciplinary-minded computer scientists [4], and, on the other hand, there are the W3C Semantic Web standards XML, RDF(S), SPARQL, and OWL. Some use these standards to achieve data integration, some do not. Since this is a Semantic Web course, we shall take a look at two efforts who (try to) do, which came forth from the activities of the W3C’s Health Care and Life Sciences Interest Group. More precisely, we take a closer look at a paper written about 3 years ago [5] that reports on a case study to try to get those Semantic Web Technologies to work for them in order to achieve data integration and a range of other things. There is also a more recent paper from the HCLS IG [6], where they aimed at not only linking of data but also querying of distributed data, using a mixture of RDF triple stores and SKOS. Both papers reveal their understanding of the purposes of SWT, and, moreover, what their goals are, their experimentation with various technologies to achieve them, and where there is still some work to do. There are notable achievements described in these, and related, papers, but the sought-after “killer app” is yet to be announced.

The lecture will cover a ‘historical’ overview and what more recent ontology-adopters focus on, the very basics of data integration approaches that motivated the development of ontologies, and we shall analyse some technological issues and challenges mentioned in [5] concerning Semantic Web (or not) technologies.


[1] The Gene Ontology Consortium. Gene ontology: tool for the unification of biology. Nature Genetics, May 2000;25(1):25-9.

[2] Barry Smith, Michael Ashburner, Cornelius Rosse, Jonathan Bard, William Bug, Werner Ceusters, Louis J. Goldberg, Karen Eilbeck, Amelia Ireland, Christopher J Mungall, The OBI Consortium, Neocles Leontis, Philippe Rocca-Serra, Alan Ruttenberg, Susanna-Assunta Sansone, Richard H Scheuermann, Nigam Shah, Patricia L. Whetzel, Suzanna Lewis. The OBO Foundry: coordinated evolution of ontologies to support biomedical data integration. Nature Biotechnology 25, 1251-1255 (2007).

[3] Joshua S. Madin, Shawn Bowers, Mark P. Schildhauer and Matthew B. Jones. (2008). Advancing ecological research with ontologies. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 23(3): 159-168.

[4] Erhard Rahm. Data Integration in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences. EDBT Summer School, Bolzano, Sep. 2007.

[5] Ruttenberg A, Clark T, Bug W, Samwald M, Bodenreider O, Chen H, Doherty D, Forsberg K, Gao Y, Kashyap V, Kinoshita J, Luciano J, Scott Marshall M, Ogbuji C, Rees J, Stephens S, Wong GT, Elizabeth Wu, Zaccagnini D, Hongsermeier T, Neumann E, Herman I, Cheung KH. Advancing translational research with the Semantic Web, BMC Bioinformatics, 8, 2007.

[6] Kei-Hoi Cheung, H Robert Frost, M Scott Marshall, Eric Prud’hommeaux, Matthias Samwald, Jun Zhao, and Adrian Paschke. A journey to Semantic Web query federation in the life sciences. BMC Bioinformatics 2009, 10(Suppl 10):S10

Note: references 1, 2, and (5 or 6) are mandatory reading, and 3 and 4 are recommended to read.

Lecture notes: lecture 8 – SWLS background and data integration

Course website

Computational, and other, problems for genomics of emerging infectious diseases

PLoS has published a cross-journal special collection on Genomics of Emerging Infectious Diseases last week. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I had a look at the article about limitations of and challenges for the computational resources by Berglund, Nystedt, and Andersson [1]. It reads quite like the one about computational problems for metagenomics I wrote about earlier (here and here), but they have a somewhat curious request in the closing section of the paper.

Concerning the overall contents of the paper and its similarity with the computational aspects of metagenomics, the computational aspects of complete genome assembly is still not quite sorted out fully, and in particular the need “for better ways to integrate data from diverse sources, including shotgun sequencing, paired-end sequencing, [and more]…” and a quality scoring standard. The other major one is the recurring topic is the hard work of annotation to give meaning to the data. Then there are the requests for better, and 3D, visualizations of the data and the cross-granular analysis of data along the omics trail and at different scales.

Limitations and challenges that are more specific to this subject domain are the classification and risk assessments for the emergence of novel infectious strains and risk prediction software for disease outbreaks. In addition, they put a higher importance put on the request for supporting tools to figure out the evolutionary aspects of the sequences and how the pieces of DNA have recombined, including how and from where they have horizontally transferred.

In the closing section, the authors reiterate that

To achieve these goals, investments in user-friendly software and improved visualization tools, along with excellent expertise in computational biology, will be of utmost importance.

I fancy the thought that our WONDER system for the HGT-DB for, in particular, graphical querying meets the first requirement—at least as proof of concept that one can construct an arbitrary query graphically using an ontology and all that in a web browser. Having said that, I am also aware of the authors’ complaint that

Currently, the slow transition from a scientific in-house program to the distribution of a stable and efficient software package is a major bottleneck in scientific knowledge sharing, preventing efficient progress in all areas of computational biology. Efforts to design, share, and improve software must receive increased funding, practical support, and, not the least, scientific impact.

Yes, like most bioinformatics tools and proof-of-concept and prototype software that comes from academia, it is not industry-grade software. To get the latter, companies have to do some more ‘shopping’ around and investment into it, i.e., monitor the latest engineering developments that demonstrate working theory presented at conferences, take up the ones they deem interesting, and transform it into a stable tool. We—be it here at FUB or almost any other university—do not have an army of experienced programmers, not only because we do not have the financial resources to pay programmers (cf. researchers with whom more scientific brownie-points can be scored) but, moreover, a computing department is not a cheap software house. The authors’ demand for more funding for software development to program cuter and more stable software would kill computing and engineering research at the faculty if the extra funding would not be real extra funding on top of existing budgets. The reality these days, is that many universities face cuts in funding. Go figure where that leaves the authors’ request. The complaint may have been more appropriate and effective when the authors would have voiced it in an industry journal.

The last part of the quote, receiving increased scientific impact, seems to me a difficult one. Descriptions of proof-of-concept and prototype software to experimentally validate the implementability of a theory can find a home in a scientific publication outlet, but a paper that tells the reader the authors have made a tool more stable is not reporting on research results and it does not bring us any new knowledge, does not answer a research question, does not solve an hitherto unsolved problem, does not confirm/refute a hypothesis. Why should—“must” in the authors’ words—improved, more usable and more stable, software receive scientific impact? Stable and freely available tools have an impact on doing science and some tasks would be nigh on undoable without them, but this does not imply such tools are part and parcel of the scientific discovery. One does not include in the “scientific impact” the Petri dish vendor, PCR machine developers, or Oracle 10g development team either. There are different activities with different scopes, goals, outcomes, and reward mechanisms; and that’s fine. Proposing to offer companies some fairly difficult to determine scientific-impact-brownie-points may not be the most effective way to motivate them to develop tools for science—getting across the possibility to make profit in the medium- to long term and to do something of societal relevance may well be a better motivator.


[1] Berglund EC, Nystedt B, Andersson SGE (2009) Computational Resources in Infectious Disease: Limitations and Challenges. PLoS Comput Biol 5(10): e1000481. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000481