Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Evolutionary Computation and Data Mining in Biology

For over 15 years, members of the computer science, machine learning, and data mining communities have gathered in a beautiful European location each spring to share ideas about biologically-inspired computation.  Stemming from the work of John Holland who pioneered the field of genetic algorithms, multiple approaches have been developed that exploit the dynamics of natural systems to solve computational problems.  These algorithms have been applied in a wide variety of fields, and to celebrate and cross-pollinate ideas from these various disciplines the EvoStar event co-locates five conferences at the same venue, covering genetic programming (EuroGP), combinatorial optimization (EvoCOP), music, art, and design (EvoMUSART), multidisciplinary applications (EvoApplications), and computational biology (EvoBIO).  EvoStar 2013 will be held in Vienna, Austria on April 3-5, and is always expertly coordinated by the wonderful Jennifer Willies from Napier University, UK. Multiple research groups from the US and Europe will attend to present their exciting work in these areas.

Many problems in bioinformatics and statistical analysis use what are considered “greedy” algorithms to fit parameters to data – that is, they settle on a nearby collection of parameters as the solution and potentially miss a global best solution.  This problem is well-known in the computer science community for toy problems like bin packing or the knapsack problem.  In human genetics, related problems are partitioning complex pedigrees or selecting maximally unrelated individuals from a dataset, and can also appear when maximizing likelihood equations.

EvoBIO focuses on using biologically-inspired algorithms (like genetic algorithms) to improve performance for many bioinformatics tasks.  For example, Stephen and I have both applied these methods for analysis of genetic data using neural networks, and for forward-time genetic data simulation (additional details here).

EvoBIO is very pleased to be sponsored by BMC Biodata Mining, a natural partner for this conference.  I recently wrote a blog post for BioMed Central about EvoBIO as well.  Thanks to their sponsorship, the winner of the EvoBIO best paper award will receive free publication in Biodata Mining, and runners-up will receive 25% discount off the article processing charge.

So, if you are in the mood for a new conference and would like to see and influence some of these creative approaches to data analysis, consider attending EvoSTAR -- We'd love to see you there!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Software Carpentry Bootcamp at University of Virginia

A couple of weeks ago I, with the help of others here at UVA, organized a Software Carpentry bootcamp, instructed by Steve Crouch, Carlos Anderson, and Ben Morris. The day before the course started, Charlottesville was racked by nearly a foot of snow, widespread power outages, and many cancelled incoming flights. Luckily our instructors arrived just in time, and power was (mostly) restored shortly before the boot camp started. Despite the conditions, the course was very well-attended.

Software Carpentry's aim is to teach researchers (usually graduate students) basic computing concepts and skills so that they can get more done in less time, and with less pain. They're a volunteer organization funded by Mozilla and the Sloan foundation, and led this two-day bootcamp completely free of charge to us.

The course started out with a head-first dive into Unix and Bash scripting, followed by a tutorial on automation with Make, concluding the first day with an introduction to Python. The second day covered version control with git, Python code testing, and wrapped up with an introduction to databases and SQL. At the conclusion of the course, participants offered near-universal positive feedback, with the git and Make tutorials being exceptionally popular.

Software Carpentry's approach to teaching these topics is unlike many others that I've seen. Rather than lecturing on for hours, the instructors inject very short (~5 minute) partnered exercises between every ~15 minutes of instruction in 1.5 hour sessions. With two full days of intensive instruction and your computer in front of you, it's all too easy to get distracted by an email, get lost in your everyday responsibilities, and zone out for the rest of the session.  The exercises keep participants paying attention and accountable to their partner.

All of the bootcamp's materials are freely available:

Unix and Bash:
Python Introduction:
Git tutorial:
Databases & SQL:
Everything else:

Perhaps more relevant to a broader audience are the online lectures and materials available on the Software Carpentry Website, which include all the above topics, as well as many others.

We capped the course at 50, and had 95 register within a day of opening registration, so we'll likely do this again in the future. I sit in countless meetings where faculty lament how nearly all basic science researchers enter grad school or their postdoc woefully unprepared for this brave new world of data-rich high-throughput science. Self-paced online learning works well for some, but if you're in a department or other organization that could benefit from a free, on-site, intensive introduction to the topics listed above, I highly recommend contacting Software Carpentry and organizing your own bootcamp.

Finally, when organizing an optional section of the course, we let participants vote whether they preferred learning number crunching with NumPy, or SQL/databases; SQL won by a small margin. However, Katherine Holcomb in UVACSE has graciously volunteered to teach a two-hour introduction to NumPy this week, regardless of whether you participated in the boot camp (although some basic Python knowledge is recommended). This (free) short course is this Thursday, March 21, 2-4pm, in the same place as the bootcamp (Brown Library Classroom in Clark Hall). Sign up here.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Comparing Sequence Classification Algorithms for Metagenomics

Metagenomics is the study of DNA collected from environmental samples (e.g., seawater, soil, acid mine drainage, the human gut, sputum, pus, etc.). While traditional microbial genomics typically means sequencing a pure cultured isolate, metagenomics involves taking a culture-free environmental sample and sequencing a single gene (e.g. the 16S rRNA gene), multiple marker genes, or shotgun sequencing everything in the sample in order to determine what's there.

A challenge in shotgun metagenomics analysis is the sequence classification problem: i.e., given a sequence, what's it's origin? I.e., did this sequence read come from E. coli or some other enteric bacteria? Note that sequence classification does not involve genome assembly - sequence classification is done on unassembled reads. If you could perfectly classify the origin of every sequence read in your sample, you would know exactly what organisms are in your environmental sample and how abundant each one is.

The solution to this problem isn't simply BLAST'ing every sequence read that comes off your HiSeq 2500 against NCBI nt/nr. The computational cost of this BLAST search would be many times more expensive than the sequencing itself. There are many algorithms for sequence classification. This paper examines a wide range of the available algorithms and software implementations for sequence classification as applied to metagenomic data:

Bazinet, Adam L., and Michael P. Cummings. "A comparative evaluation of sequence classification programs." BMC Bioinformatics 13.1 (2012): 92.

In this paper, the authors comprehensively evaluated the performance of over 25 programs that fall into three categories: alignment-based, composition-based, and phylogeny-based. For illustrative purposes, the authors constructed a "phylogenetic tree" that shows how each of the 25 methods they evaluated are related to each other:

Figure 1: Program clustering. A neighbor-joining tree that clusters the classification programs based on their similar attributes.

The performance evaluation was done on several different datasets where the composition was known, using a similar set of evaluation criteria (sensitivity = number of correct assignments / number of sequences in the data; precision = number of correct assignments/number of assignments made). They concluded that the performance of particular methods varied widely between datasets due to reasons like highly variable taxonomic composition and diversity, level of sequence representation in underlying databases, read lengths, and read quality. The authors specifically point out that just because some methods lack sensitivity (as they've defined it), they are still useful because they have high precision. For example, marker-based approaches (like Metaphyler) might only classify a small number of reads, but they're highly precise, and may still be enough to accurately recapitulate organismal distribution and abundance.

Importantly, the authors note that you can't ignore computational requirements, which varied by orders of magnitude between methods. Selection of the right method depends on the goals (is sensitivity or precision more important?) and the available resources (time and compute power are never infinite - these are tangible limitations that are imposed in the real world).

This paper was first received at BMC Bioinformatics a year ago, and since then many new methods for sequence classification have been published. Further, this paper only evaluates methods for classification of unassembled reads, and does not evaluate methods that rely on metagenome assembly (that's the subject of another much longer post, but check out Titus Brown's blog for lots more on this topic).

Overall, this paper was a great demonstration of how one might attempt to evaluate many different tools ostensibly aimed at solving the same problem but functioning in completely different ways.

Bazinet, Adam L., and Michael P. Cummings. "A comparative evaluation of sequence classification programs." BMC Bioinformatics 13.1 (2012): 92.
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Getting Genetics Done by Stephen Turner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.