Category Archives: How To

How to do things. doh.

Processing large files using python

In the last year or so, and with my increased focus on ribo-seq data, I have come to fully appreciate what the term big data means. The ribo-seq studies in their raw forms can easily reach into hundreds of GBs, which means that processing them in both a timely and efficient manner requires some thought. In this blog post, and hopefully those following, I want to detail some of the methods I have come up (read: pieced together from multiple stack exchange posts), that help me take on data of this magnitude. Specifically I will be detailing methods for python and R, though some of the methods are transferrable to other languages.

My first big data tip for python is learning how to break your files into smaller units (or chunks) in a manner that you can make use of multiple processors. Let’s start with the simplest way to read a file in python.

with open("input.txt") as f:
    data = f.readlines()
    for line in data:

This mistake made above, with regards to big data, is that it reads all the data into RAM before attempting to process it line by line. This is likely the simplest way to cause the memory to overflow and an error raised. Let’s fix this by reading the data in line by line, so that only a single line is stored in the RAM at any given time.

with open("input.txt") as f:
    for line in f:

This is a big improvement, namely it doesn’t crash when fed a big file (though also it’s shorter!). Next we should attempt to speed this up a bit by making use of all these otherwise idle cores.

import multiprocessing as mp

#init objects
pool = mp.Pool(cores)
jobs = []

#create jobs
with open("input.txt") as f:
    for line in f:
        jobs.append( pool.apply_async(process,(line)) )

#wait for all jobs to finish
for job in jobs:

#clean up

Provided the order of which you process the lines don’t matter, the above generates a set (pool) of workers, ideally one for each core, before creating a bunch of tasks (jobs), one for each line, for the workers to do. I tend to use the Pool object provided by the multiprocessing module due to ease of use, however, you can spawn and control individual workers using mp.Process if you want finer control. For mere number crunching, the Pool object is very good.

While the above is now making use of all those cores, it sadly runs into memory problems once again. We specifically use apply_async function so that the pool isn’t blocked while each line processes. However, in doing so, all the data is read into memory once again; this time stored as individual lines associated with each job, waiting inline to be processed. As such, the memory will again overflow. Ideally the method will only read the line into memory when it is its turn to be processed.

import multiprocessing as mp

def process_wrapper(lineID):
    with open("input.txt") as f:
        for i,line in enumerate(f):
            if i != lineID:

#init objects
pool = mp.Pool(cores)
jobs = []

#create jobs
with open("input.txt") as f:
    for ID,line in enumerate(f):
        jobs.append( pool.apply_async(process_wrapper,(ID)) )

#wait for all jobs to finish
for job in jobs:

#clean up

Above we’ve now changed the function fed to pool of workers to include opening the file, locating the specified line, reading it into memory, and then processing it. The only input now stored for each job spawned is the line number, thereby preventing the memory overflow. Sadly, the overhead involved in having to locate the line by reading iteratively through the file for each job is untenable, getting progressively more time consuming as you get further into the file. To avoid this we can use the seek function of file objects which skips you to a particular location within a file. Combining with the tell function, which returns the current location within a file, gives:

import multiprocessing as mp

def process_wrapper(lineByte):
    with open("input.txt") as f:
        line = f.readline()

#init objects
pool = mp.Pool(cores)
jobs = []

#create jobs
with open("input.txt") as f:
    nextLineByte = f.tell()
    for line in f:
        jobs.append( pool.apply_async(process_wrapper,(nextLineByte)) )
        nextLineByte = f.tell()

#wait for all jobs to finish
for job in jobs:

#clean up

Using seek we can move directly to the correct part of the file, whereupon we read a line into the memory and process it. We have to be careful to correctly handle the first and last lines, but otherwise this does exactly what we set out, namely using all the cores to process a given file while not overflowing the memory.

I’ll finish this post with a slight upgrade to the above as there is a reasonable amount of overhead associated with opening and closing the file for each individual line. If we process multiple lines of the file at a time as a chunk, we can reduce these operations. The biggest technicality when doing this is noting that when you jump to a location in a file, you are likely not located at the start of a line. For a simple file, as in this example, this just means you need to call readline, which reads to next newline character. More complex file types likely require additional code to locate a suitable location to start/end a chunk.

import multiprocessing as mp,os

def process_wrapper(chunkStart, chunkSize):
    with open("input.txt") as f:
        lines =
        for line in lines:

def chunkify(fname,size=1024*1024):
    fileEnd = os.path.getsize(fname)
    with open(fname,'r') as f:
        chunkEnd = f.tell()
    while True:
        chunkStart = chunkEnd,1)
        chunkEnd = f.tell()
        yield chunkStart, chunkEnd - chunkStart
        if chunkEnd > fileEnd:

#init objects
pool = mp.Pool(cores)
jobs = []

#create jobs
for chunkStart,chunkSize in chunkify("input.txt"):
    jobs.append( pool.apply_async(process_wrapper,(chunkStart,chunkSize)) )

#wait for all jobs to finish
for job in jobs:

#clean up

Anyway, I hope that some of the above was either new or even perhaps helpful to you. If you know of a better way to do things (in python), then I’d be very interested to hear about it. In another post coming in the near future, I will expanded on this code, turning it into a parent class from which create multiple children to use with various file types.

Colour wisely…

Colour – the attribute of an image that makes it acceptable or destined for the bin. Colour has a funny effect on us – it’s a double-edged sword that greatly strengthens, or weakens data representation in such a huge level. No one really talks about what’s a good way to colour an image or a graph, but it’s something that most can agree as being pleasing, or disgusting. There are two distinctive advantages to colouring a graph: it conveys both quantitative and categorical information very, very well. Thus, I will provide a brief overview (with code) on how colour can be used to display both quantitative and qualitative information. (*On the note of colours, Nick has previously discussed how colourblindness must be considered in visualising data…).

1. Colour conveys quantitative information.
A huge advantage of colour is that it can provide quantitative information, but this has to be done correctly. Here are three graphs showing the exact same information (the joint density of two normal distributions) and  we can see from the get-go which method is the best at representing the density of the two normal distributions:

Colouring the same graph using three different colour maps.

Colouring the same graph using three different colour maps.

If you thought the middle one was the best one, I’d agree too. Why would I say that, despite it being grayscale and seemingly being the least colourful of them all?

  • Colour is not limited to hues (i.e. whether it’s red/white/blue/green etc. etc.); ‘colour’ is also achieved by saturation and brightness (i.e., how vivid a colour is, or dark/light it is). In the case of the middle graph, we’re using brightness to indicate the variations in density and this is a more intuitive display of variations in density. Another advantage of using shades as the means to portray colour is that it will most likely be OK with colourblind users.
  • Why does the graph on the right not work for this example? This is a case where we use a “sequential” colour map to convey the differences in density. Although the colour legend clarifies what colour belongs to which density bin, without it, it’s very difficult to tell what “red” is with respect to “yellow”. Obviously by having a colour map we know that red means high density and yellow is lower, but without the legend, we can interpret the colours very differently, e.g. as categories, rather than quantities. Basically, when you decide on a sequential colour map, its use must be handled well, and a colour map/legend is critical. Otherwise, we risk putting colours as categories, rather than as continuous values.
  • Why is the left graph not working well? This is an example of a “diverging” colourmap.
    It’s somewhat clear that blue and red define two distinct quantities. Despite this, a major error of this colour map comes in the fact that there’s a white colour in the middle. If the white was used as a “zero crossing” — basically, where a white means the value is 0 — the diverging colour map would have been a more effective tool. However, we can see that matplotlib used white as the median value (by default); this sadly creates the false illusion of a 0 value, as our eyes tend to associate white with missing data, or ‘blanks’. Even if this isn’t your biggest beef with the divergent colour map, we run into the same colour as the sequential colour map, where blue and red don’t convey information (unless specified), and the darkness/lightness of the blue and red are not linked very well without the white in the middle. Thus, it doesn’t do either job very well in this graph. Basically, avoid using divergent colourmaps unless we have two different quantities of values (e.g. data spans from -1 to +1).

2. Colour displays categorical information.
An obvious use of colour is the ability to categorise our data. Anything as simple as a line chart with multiple lines will tell you that colour is terrific at distinguishing groups. This time, notice that the different colour schemes have very different effects:

Colour schemes can instantly differentiate groups.

Colour schemes can instantly differentiate groups.

Notice how this time around, the greyscale method (right) was clearly the losing choice. To begin with, it’s hard to pick out what’s the difference between persons A,B,C, but there’s almost a temptation to think that person A morphs into person C! However, on the left, with a distinct set of colours, there is a clear distinction of persons A, B, and C as the three separate colours. Although a set of distinct three colours is a good thing, bear in mind the following…

  • Make sure the colours don’t clash with respect to lightness! Try to pick something that’s distinct (blue/red/green), rather than two colours which can be interpreted as two shades of the same colour (red/pink, blue/cyan, etc.)
  • Pick a palette to choose from – a rainbow is typically the best choice just because it’s the most natural, but feel free to choose your own set of hues. Also include white and black as necessary, so long as it’s clear that they are also part of the palette. White in particular would only work if you have a black outline.
  • Keep in mind that colour blind readers can have trouble with certain colour combinations (red/yellow/green) and it’s best to steer toward colourblind-friendly palettes.
import numpy as np
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
import scipy.stats as sp
from mpl_toolkits.axes_grid1 import make_axes_locatable

### Part 1
# Sample 250 points
x = np.random.normal(size = 250)
y = np.random.normal(size = 250)

# Assume the limits of a standard normal are at -3, 3
pmin, pmax = -3, 3

# Create a meshgrid that is 250x250
xgrid, ygrid = np.mgrid[pmin:pmax:250j, pmin:pmax:250j]
pts = np.vstack([xgrid.ravel(), ygrid.ravel()]) # ravel unwinds xgrid from a 250x250 matrix into a 62500x1 array

data = np.vstack([x,y])
kernel = sp.gaussian_kde(data)
density = np.reshape(kernel(pts).T, xgrid.shape) # Evaluate the density for each point in pts, then reshape back to a 250x250 matrix

greys =
bwr =
jet =

# Create 3 contour plots
fig, ax = plt.subplots(1,3)
g0 = ax[0].contourf(xgrid, ygrid, density, cmap = bwr)
c0 = ax[0].contour(xgrid, ygrid, density, colors = 'k') # Create contour lines, all black
g1 = ax[1].contourf(xgrid, ygrid, density, cmap = greys)
c1 = ax[1].contour(xgrid, ygrid, density, colors = 'k') # Create contour lines, all black
g2 = ax[2].contourf(xgrid, ygrid, density, cmap = jet)
c2 = ax[2].contour(xgrid, ygrid, density, colors = 'k') # Create contour lines, all black

# Divide each axis then place a colourbar next to it
div0 = make_axes_locatable(ax[0])
cax0 = div0.append_axes('right', size = '10%', pad = 0.1) # Append a new axes object
cb0  = plt.colorbar(g0, cax = cax0)

div1 = make_axes_locatable(ax[1])
cax1 = div1.append_axes('right', size = '10%', pad = 0.1)
cb1  = plt.colorbar(g1, cax = cax1)

div2 = make_axes_locatable(ax[2])
cax2 = div2.append_axes('right', size = '10%', pad = 0.1)
cb2  = plt.colorbar(g2, cax = cax2)

plt.savefig('normals.png', dpi = 300)

### Part 2
years = np.arange(1999, 2017, 1)
progress1 = np.random.randint(low=500, high =600, size = len(years))
progress2 = np.random.randint(low=500, high =600, size = len(years))
progress3 = np.random.randint(low=500, high =600, size = len(years))

fig, ax = plt.subplots(1,2)
ax[0].plot(years, progress1, label = 'Person A', c = '#348ABD')
ax[0].plot(years, progress2, label = 'Person B', c = '#00de00')
ax[0].plot(years, progress3, label = 'Person C', c = '#A60628')

ax[1].plot(years, progress1, label = 'Person A', c = 'black')
ax[1].plot(years, progress2, label = 'Person B', c = 'gray')
ax[1].plot(years, progress3, label = 'Person C', c = '#3c3c3c')

plt.savefig('colourgrps.png', dpi = 300)

From 300 superpositions/sec to 6,000,000 superpositions/sec. A Python to C story

Part of the work I do requires me to identify uniqueness of structural shapes in specific proteins. People have done this in many ways, some more complex than others. I like more simple things so I decided to use clustering on top of a superposition algorithm. I will not detail too much the clustering part of this algorithm as this is not the focus of this article, but let’s assume that we need to make millions, possibly billions, of superpositions. In the following I will go through the steps I took in making a superposition library faster and faster, as the requirements demanded more and more. It will include information on how to profile your code, connect Python to C, and idiosyncrasies of parallelising C code.

Version 1.0 Python 100%

In PyFread I found a superposition algorithm, coupled with a PDB parser. I extracted the code and created a wrapping function. The signature of it was:

def superpose(file1, file2):

The files had to contain only ATOM lines with the same number of residues . It returned the RMSD of the best superposition, which was needed for the clustering. This could do a couple of a hundred  superpositions/second. Using the inbuilt python profiler I found out that both the reading in part of the algorithm and the superposition are slowing down the program so I decided to move the contents of the wrapping function in C.

You can easily profile your code by running the command below. It will tell you for each method how many times it’s called and what is the total time spent in it. More information here

python -m cProfile

Version 2.0 C 99% – Python 1%

My script still needed to run from python but it’s functionality would be implemented in C. So I rewrote the whole thing in C (a PDB parser and superposition algorithm)  and  interfaced it to Python. The way to achieve this is using ctypes. This provides an interface for calling C/C++ methods from Python.  The way you set this up is:

C code rmsd.cpp

extern “C” {
    void superpose_c(const char* file1, consta char* file2, double* rmsd){
        //perform superposition
        *rmsd = compute_rmsd();

You compile this code with: g++ -shared -Wl,-soname,rmsdlib -o -fPIC rmsd.cpp . This creates a shared object which can be loaded in Python

Python Code

# load the ctypes library with C-like objects
from ctypes import *
# load the C++ shared objects
lib = cdll.LoadLibrary(‘./’)

#convert python string to c char array function
def to_c_string(py_string)
    c_string = c_char * (len(py_string)+1)()
    for i in range(len(py_string)):
        c_string[i] = py_string[i]
    c_string[i+1] = “”

rmsd = c_double()
lib.superpose_c(to_c_string(“file1.pdb”), to_c_string(“file2.pdb”), ref(rmsd))
# the use of ref is necessary so that the value set to rmsd inside the C function will be returned to Python

There are other ways of coding the Python – C Bridge I’m sure, and if you think you have something better and easier please comment.

Version 2.1 Armadillo Library

After running another batch of profiling, this time in C, I found that the bottleneck was the superposition code.

An easy way to profile C code is that when you compile it you use the -pg flag (gcc -pg …..). You then run the executable which will produce a file called gmon.out. Using that you run the command gprof executable_name gmon.out > analysis.txt . This will store the profiling info in analysis.txt. You can read more on this here

The superposition algorithm involved doing a Singular Value Decomposition, which in my implementation was slow. Jaroslaw Nowak found the Armadillo library which does a lot of cool linear algebra stuff very fast, and it is written in C. He rewrote the superposition using Armadillo which made it much faster. You can read about Armadillo here

Version 3.0 C 100%

So what is the bottleneck now? Everytime I do a superposition the C function gets called from Python. Suppose I have the following files: file1.pdb, file2.pdb, file3.pdb, file4.pdb . I have to compare file1.pdb to every other file, which means I will be reading file1.pdb 3 times ( or 1 million times depending on what I had to do) in my original Python – C implementation. My clustering method is smarter than this, but similar redundancies did exists and they slowed down my program. I therefore decided to move everything in C, so that once I read a file I could keep it stored in memory.

Version 3.1 We have multiple cores, let’s use them

The superpositions can be parallelised, but how straightforward is doing this in C++? First of all you need to import the library #include <thread> . A simple scenario would be that I have a vector of N filenames and the program would have to compare everything with everything. The results would be stored in the upper triangle of an NxN array. The way I usually approach such a situation is that I send to each thread a list of comparison indeces (eg. Thread 1 compares 1-2, 1-3, 1-4; Thread 2-3, 2-4….), and the address of the results matrix (where the RMSD values would be stored). Because each thread will be writing to a different set of indeces in the matrix it should not be a problem that all the threads see the same results matrix (if you code it properly).

The way to start a thread is:

thread(par_method, …. , ref(results))

par_method is the method you are calling. When you pass an argument like results to a thread if it’s not specified with ref(..) it would be passed by value (it does not matter if normally in an unthreaded environment it would be passed by reference). ref is a reference wrapper and will make sure that all the threads see the same results instance.

Other problems you can come across is if you want to write to the same file from multiple threads, or modify vector objects which are passed by reference (with ref). They do not have thread safe operations, the program will crash if more than one thread will call a function on these objects. To make sure this does not happen you can use a lock. The way you achieve this in C is by using with mutex.

#include <mutex>
// Declare a global variable mutex that every thread sees
mutex output_mtx;

void parallel_method(….,vector<string>& files){
    //Unsafe operation

If one thread has locked output_mtx another one won’t finish the execution of output_mtx.lock() until the other first one unlocks it.

Version 3.2 12 million files in a folder is not a good idea

My original use case was that the method would receive two file names, the files would be read and the superposition done. This original use case stayed with the program, and even in version 3.1 you required one file for each fragment. Because the library was becoming faster and faster the things we wanted to try became more ambitious. You could hear me saying ‘Yeah sure we can cluster 12 million PDB fragments’. To do this I had to extract the 12 million fragments and store them in as many files. It wasn’t long until I received an angry/condecending email from the IT department. So what to do?

I decided to take each PDB file, remove everything except the ATOM fields and store them as binary files. In this way instead of providing two filenames to the superposition algorithm you provide two byte ranges which would be read from the pre-parsed PDB files. This is fast and you also have only 100k files(one for each PDB file), which you could use over and over again.

Version 3.2 is the latest version as of now but it is worth pointing out that whatever you do to make your code faster it will never be enough! The requirements become more ambitious as your code is getting faster. I can now perform 6 million superpositions/second on fragments of 4 residues, and 2 million superpositions/second on fragments of 5 residues. This declines exponentially and I can foresee a requirement to cluster all the 10 residue fragments from the PDB appearing sometime in the future.







Submitting your thesis!

Writing and submitting your thesis is (almost) the final stage of completing your PhD. It can be the most stressful and unpleasant part of the process… but it can also be rewarding to see the story of your last three years’ work fall into place.

 "Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham (

All I want for christmas is… “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham (

This post is a miscellaneous collection of advice and resources about the submission process, most of which have been passed down from the very first members of OPIG. Hopefully it will be useful to have it all in the same place for present and future members. Feel free to comment here if you have any tips I have missed!

All information and links that I’ve included are correct at the time of writing (for Oxford University Statistics students) but you should always use the university’s guidelines as your primary resource.

The very beginning: the plan

Don’t spend too long on this! But you should have an idea of your planned chapter titles and an overall story for your book. Also useful is a timeline for when you will finish drafts of chapters by. Try to be realistic with this. If you decide to change your thesis title you should fill out an application for change of thesis title form (GSO.6). Make sure you look up any restrictions (word/page limits etc.) which may apply, and confirm your hand-in date.

Starting writing

It’s a good idea to decide what you will use to write your thesis. Most OPIG members use LaTeX. There are some great thesis templates out there but the one most people tend to use is one from Cambridge’s Engineering department. You can do a fair bit of customisation within that template… changing fonts, headers, titles and more, but it’s a great starting point.

When the finish line’s in sight: choosing examiners

A couple of months before you are planning to submit your thesis you should discuss with your supervisor(s) potential examiners. Your supervisor can informally check with them if they are happy to examine you and then you should fill out an appointment of examiners form (GSO.3). You can also change your thesis title on this form without filling in GSO.6.

Finishing writing

Your final document is likely to be over 100 pages with thousands of words (or potential typos as you might come to call them). A great LaTeX spell checker is aspell which should already be installed on your work machine. To spell check a .tex file (ignoring all TeX notation… apart from multiple citations I found!) using a British dictionary simply type:

aspell --lang=en_GB -t -c filename.tex

You’re absolutely guaranteed to still have typos floating around but it’s a decent start. You (and others if you can get them) should manually proof-read as well!

Final Formatting

Your thesis should be set out on numbered, portrait A4 pages. It should be double spaced and the inner (bound) margin should be 3-3.5cm. For more details on the formatting required check out the university’s regulations.

Printing and binding

When you’re happy with your proof-reading (you’re still almost guaranteed to have remaining typos) you’ll have to print and bind your finished book! To comply with university guidelines you will need to submit two copies, for each of your examiners, to the exam schools. You may also like to print a copy for yourself (you will need one to take with you into your viva). Before you start, if you are printing in colour at the department make sure you have enough printer credit by emailing IT (let them know the printer and your Bod card number and they will top you up if necessary).

If you are planning to print your copies double sided you may want to buy your own paper of higher quality than that provided by the department (at least 100gsm). As of October 2014, the Oxford Print Centre was selling the cheapest packs of 100gsm paper we could find but sold out close to deadline day! Also check out WHSmiths or Ryman’s.

You might want to do a test run of a few colour pages of your thesis before you send the whole file to be printed. Printing at 1200dpi (instead of the default 600dpi) can improve the appearance of your figures considerably. You may want to stay late at the office to print so you are not disturbed by other print jobs during office hours.

Your thesis should be securely bound in either hard or soft cover. Loose-leaf or spiral binding won’t be accepted. There are several binding facilities through Oxford but I used the Oxford Print Centre just down the road, which also guarantees a one hour service for soft binding even on submission days.


Submit your completed copies to the exam schools, noting their opening hours (08.30-17:00, Monday to Friday), take the traditional photo, and bask in your newly found FREEDOM (try to forget about the viva!).

Quick Standalone BLAST Setup for Ubuntu Linux

Some people run into trouble trying to setup a standalone version of BLAST using the NCBI instructions. Here a stremalined process will be presented, targeted at Ubuntu.

I assume that you are aware of the paradigms of blast, meaning that there are several executables for searching nucleic acids or proteins and there are different databases you can blast against. Sinon, you should read up on the available search tools  and databases before you attempt to install Blast. NB, throughout this document, I am using protein blast and protein input – changing to nucleotide sequences is trivial as you just change blastp to blastn and ‘prot’ to ‘nt’ in obvious places (and of course you use different queries and target databases).
Without further ado, Blast setup for UNIX.
There are two components for the installation:
  1. Executables (bastn, blastp etc.)
  2. Databases. (nr, nt etc.)
Both are described below with follow-up examples of usage.
Ad.1 The executables can be downloaded and compiled from here (download the source, run ./configure then make and finally make install in the directory of the untarred file). However a much easier way to do it under Ubuntu is:
sudo apt-get install ncbi-blast+
This automatically installs everything. In both cases to check if all went ok, type:
which blastp
If you get a directory such as /usr/local/bin than all went well and that’s where your executables are.
Ad.2 FIrst, you need to decide on where to store the databases. Do this by setting the environment variable:
export BLASTDB=/path/to/blastdbs/of/your/chosing
Now, we can either use one of the ncbi-curated databases or create our own. We will do both.
A) Downloading and using an ncbi-curated database.
The databases can be downloaded using the update_blastdb script. As an example I will download a non redundant protein database which is referred to as ‘nr’:
sudo update_blastdb --passive --timeout 300 --force --verbose nr
ls *.gz |xargs -n1 tar -xzvf
rm *.gz.*

The penultimate command extracts all the files you have downloaded and the last one removes the downloaded archives.

Now you should be able to use your new database by executing (where somesequence.fasta is your sample query):

blastp -db nr -query somesequence.fasta


B) Creating your own database.

Firstly, put a bunch of fasta protein sequences into a file called sample.fa

Next, execute the following

makeblastdb -in sample.fa -dbtype 'prot' -out NewDb

We have now created a blast protein database from your fasta file, called NewDB. The last line simply moves all the blast files to the database directory.

Now you should be able to use your new database by executing (where somesequence.fasta is your sample query):

blastp -db NewDb -query somesequence.fasta



These instructions are the shortest way I could find to get a working stand-alone BLAST application. If you require more info, you can look here.


A Colourblind Guide to Colourful Presentations…

Like many people, I am colourblind.

Fortunately I am only ‘mildly’ red-green colourblind and it doesn’t have a huge detrimental effect on my life.

Firstly, to dispel a couple of misconceptions:

  1. I can still see colour. ‘blindness’ here would be better called ‘deficiency’ or ‘desensitivity’. I am simply less sensitive to reds/greens than the ‘normal’ eye. Whilst I can discriminate between blues/yellows, it is harder to distinguish some reds from some greens.
  2. Colour blindness is not the swapping of colours. I don’t accidentally call red and green the wrong things – I just can’t tell what a colour is in some cases.
  3. I have no problem with traffic lights.
  4. Colour blindness does not mean poor eyesight. My cornea, lens, etc work fine, thank-you-very-much.

Approximately 8% of men and 0.5% of women are colourblind to various extents. There is a wide range of types, and severities, of colourblindness. For more information, there are a number of websites with helpful descriptions – This, for example…

There’s even a nature paper about colour blindness awareness…

The standard tests for colour-blindness are the well-recognised Ishihara colour tests. Lets do a few (just for fun)…


An example Ishihara Colour Test. Most people can see the ’12’ in the image. Image: Wikipedia


Another Colour Test. You might be able to see a ‘6’ in the image (I can’t…). Image: Wikipedia


Another Colour Test. You should see nothing in this image. I see a ‘2’. Image: Wikipedia


The last one. You should see a ’42’. I can just about see a nondescript blur that might be a ‘4’ on the left hand side. Image: Wikipedia

To give an idea of what it’s like, this page gives a very good example. For a theatre booking system, they indicate the seats that offer a restricted view of the stage –

Restricted view seats are marked in orange - or are they?

Restricted view seats are clearly indicated – or are they? Image:

Whilst most people will be able to tell where the best seats are, for those with colour blindness it might not be so easy. The image below shows the same image from the point of view of someone with colour blindness – can you still be sure of which seat is which?

Still clear?

Still clear? Image:

Mostly, being colourblind doesn’t affect my life (when I’m not at the theatre). However, there is one area of my life where being colourblind is *really* annoying: presentations (and picking ties to match shirts, but I’ve got that figured out now).

So here’s the Nick-approved guide to making colour-blind friendly presentations.

  1. Choose a colour scheme that is colour-blind friendly – these are readily available online. This is mainly for graphs. Just generally avoid pale green-pale red mixtures. Purples and pinks can also be pretty confusing.
  2. Along with the above, high contrast colour schemes can be very hard to see. For instance, a presentation with a white background can make it difficult to see coloured things on the slide, as everything is drowned out by the white background – especially yellow/green text. It is also very tiring to the eye. Try dark-coloured fonts on a light-coloured background.
  3. In graphs, don’t just use colours to match lines to the legend – matching colours from lines to the colours on the legend is hard – use shapes as well, or label the lines. An example.
  4. If 3. is impossible, make the lines on graphs a decent thickness – small areas of colour are harder to determine.
  5. When referring to slide, try not to refer to ‘the red box’. Refer instead to ‘the rounded red box in the top-right of the screen’.
  6. Please don’t use red laser pointers – these are evil [citation needed]. The red light is not easily distinguishable on bright screens (or if it’s zipping around the screen). Use a green laser pointer instead. Not only are green laser pointers generally more powerful, and therefore brighter, but they are also easier to see. Why?

For a fairly comprehensive guide of how to make colour-friendly presentations, look at this page. And for checking how things might look, there are many colour-blind simulators for both images and webpages.

I hope this helps to create colour-friendly presentations.

Get PDB intermolecular protein contacts and interface residues

Very often in Struc Bio it is necessary to determine the contacts between two molecules. Most of us in the group have written a snippet of code to compute precisely that or they have adapted the Biopython functionality or one of the tools in pdbtools. The piece of code written in Python presented here is a Biopython variety that gives you the intermolecular contacts and it annotates the interface neighborhood. An example of the program output is given in the Figure below:

The complex between an antibody and an antigen is shown on the left without the annotation. On the right it is shown with intermolecular contacts annotated in red (4.5A distance) and the interface neighborhood shown in green (10A away from any contact residue).

The complex between an antibody and an antigen is shown on the left without the annotation. On the right it is shown with intermolecular contacts annotated in red (4.5A distance) and the interface neighborhood shown in green (10A away from any contact residue).


You can download it from here. There are three files inside:

  1. – the main source/runnable file
  2. README.txt – instructions, very similar to this post (quite a lot copy/pasted)
  3. 1A2Y.pdb – the PDB file used in the example to practice on.


You need Biopython. (if you are from OPIG or any other Bioinformatics group, most likely it is already installed on your machine). You can download it from here.

How to use it?

As the bare minimum, you need to provide the structure of the pdb(s) and the chains that you want to examine contacts in.

Input options:

  • –f1 : first pdb file [Required]
  • –f2 : second pdb file (if the contacts are to be calculated in the same molecule, just submit the same pdb in both cases) [Required]
  • –c1 : Chains to be used for the first molecule [Required]
  • –c2 : Chains to be used for the second molecule [Required]
  • –c : contact cutoff for intermolecular contacts (Optional, set to 4.5A if not supplied on input) 
  • –i : interface neighbor cutoff for intramolecular neighborhood of the contacting interface (Optional, set to 10.0A if not supplied on input). Set this option to zero (0.0) if you only want to get the intermolecular contacts in the interface, without the interface neighborhood.
  • –jobid : name for the output folder (Set to out_<random number> if not supplied on input)

An example which you can just copy paste and run when in the same directory as the python script:

python --f1 1A2Y.pdb --f2 1A2Y.pdb --c1 AB --c2 C --c 4.5 --i 10.0 --jobid example_output

Above command will calculate the contacts between antibody in 1a2y (chains A and B) and the antigen (chain C). The contact distance was defined as 4.5A and the interface distance was defined as 10A. All the output files are saved in the folder out_example_output.


Output folder is placed in the current directory. If you specify the output folder name (–jobid) it will be saved under the name ‘out_[whateveryoutyped]’, otherwise it will be ‘out_[randomgeneratednumber]’. The program tells you at the end where it saved all the files.

Input options:

  • molecule_1.pdb – the first supplied molecule with b-factor fields of contacts set to 100 and interface neighborhood set to 50
  • molecule_2.pdb – the second supplied molecule with b-factor fields of contacts set to 100 and interface neighborhood set to 50
  • molecule_1.txt – whitespace delimited file specifying the contacts and interface neighborhood in the second molecule in the format: [chain] [residue id] [contact ‘C’ or interface residues ‘I’]
  • molecule_2.txt – whitespace delimited file specifying the contacts and interface neighborhood in the second molecule in the format: [chain] [residue id] [contact ‘C’ or interface residues ‘I’]
  • molecule_1_constrained.pdb – the first molecule, which is constrained only to the residues in the interface.
  • molecule_2_constrained.pdb – the second molecule, which is constrained only to the residues in the interface.
  • parameters.txt – the contact distance and neighborhood distance used for the particular run.

Django for scientific applications

In my current work I am developing a cheminformatics tool using structural and activity data to investigate protein-ligand binding. I have only ever properly used love python and I listen to Saulo, so I decided to used Django to develop my application. I didn’t understand what it was and why it might be useful before I started using it but below I thought I’d discuss a few of the features that I think have been useful and might encourage others to use it.

Firstly I will outline how Django works. I wanted to download all the PDB structures for CDK2 and store the information in a data structure that is robust and easily used. We have a Target and a Protein. A Target is associated to a particular UniProt accession. Cyclin-dependent kinase 2 (CDK2) is a Target. A Protein is a set of 3D coordinates, so 1AQ1 is a Protein.

class Target(models.Model):
"""A Django model to define a given protein target"""
    UniProt = models.CharField(max_length=20,unique=True)
    InitDate = models.DateTimeField(auto_now_add=True)
    Title = models.CharField(max_length=10)

In the above Target model I have three different fields. The first field denotes the UniProt accession for the Target and is “unique”. This means that only one Target can have any given UniProt accession in my data structure. If I try to add another with the same value in the UniProt field it will throw an exception. The second field denotes the time and date that the model was created. This means I can check back to when the target was created. The third is the Title I would like to use for this, for example CDK2.

I can then make a new Target objects by:

new_target = Target()
new_target.Title = "CDK2"
new_target.UniProt = "P24941"

and save it to the database by: # Django takes care of the required SQL

The next model is for the Protein molecules:

class Protein(models.Model):
    """A Django model to define a given protein"""
    Code = models.CharField(max_length=6,unique=True)
    InitDate = models.DateTimeField(auto_now_add=True)
    TargetID = models.ForeignKey(Target)
    Apo = models.BoolenField()
    PDBInfo = models.FileField(upload_to='pdb')

The model contains the PDB Code, e.g. 1AQ1, and the date it was added to the database. It also consists of a foreign key, relating it to its Target and a boolean indicating if the structure is apo or holo. Finally there is a file field relating this entry to the appropriate file path where the PDB information is stored.

Once the data has been added to the database, Django then deals with all SQL queries from the database:

my_prot = Protein.objects.get(Code="1aq1") # Gives me the Protein object "1aq1"
CDK2_prots = Protein.objects.filter(TargetID__Title="CDK2") # All PDB entries associated to CDK2, as a query set, behaving similarily to a list
CDK2_list = [x for x in CDK2_prots] # Now exactly like a list

The “__” in the above query allows one to span the foreign key relationship, so it is searching for the Title of the Target not the Title of the Protein. Finally I can then access the PDB files for each of these proteins.

my_prot = Protein.objects.get(Code="1aq1") # Gives me the Protein object "1aq1"
print my_prot.Code # prints "1aq1"
# my_prot.PDBInfo has the behaviour of a file handle
pdb_lines = my_prot.PDBInfo.readlines()# Reads the lines of the file

There, you’ve made a queryable database, where Django deals with all the hard stuff and everything is native to python. Obviously in this example it might not be so difficult to imagine alternative ways of creating the same thing using directory structures, but as the structure of your data becomes more complex, Django can be easily manipulated and as it grow it utilises the speed advantages of modern databases.

Making Protein-Protein Interfaces Look (decently) Good

This is a little PyMOL script that I’ve used to draw antibody-antigen interfaces. If you’d like a commented version on what each and every line does, contact me! This is a slight modification of what has been done in PyMOL Wiki.

set_name FILENAME, complex	

set bg_rgb, [1,1,1]  	

color white 	     		

hide lines
show cartoon

select antibody, chain a
select antigen, chain b

select paratopeAtoms, antibody within 4.5 of antigen 
select epitopeAtoms, antigen within 4.5 of antibody

select paratopeRes, byres paratopeAtoms
select epitopeRes, byres epitopeAtoms

distance interactions, paratopeAtoms, epitopeAtoms, 4.5, 0

color red, interactions
hide labels, interactions

show sticks, paratopeRes
show sticks, epitopeRes

set cartoon_side_chain_helper, on

set sphere_quality, 2
set sphere_scale, 0.3
show spheres, paratopeAtoms
show spheres, epitopeAtoms
color tv_blue, paratopeAtoms
color tv_yellow, epitopeAtoms

set ray_trace_mode, 3
unset depth_cue
set specular, 0.5

Once you orient it to where you’d like it and ray it, you should get something like this.

Constrain a PDB to particular chains

In many applications you need to constrain PDB files to certain chains. You can do it using this program.

A. What does it do?

Given a pdb file, write out the ATOM and HETATM entries for the supplied chain(s).

PDB_constrain needs three arguments:

  1. PDB file to constrain.
  2. Chains from the pdb file to constrain.
  3. Output file.

B. Requirements:

Biopython – should be installed on your machines but in case you want to use it locally, download the latest version into the’s directory (don’t need to build).

C. Example use:

C.1 Constrain 1A2Y.pdb to chains A and B – write results in constr.pdb

python -f 1A2Y.pdb -c AB -o const.pdb


C.2 Constrain 1ACY to chain L, write results in const.pdb – this example shows that the constrainer works well with ‘insertion’ residue numbering as in antibodies where you have 27A, 27B etc.

python -f 1ACY.pdb -c L -o const.pdb