Beginning Perl for Bioinformatics

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3.5 The Programming Process

You've been assigned to write a program that counts the regulatory elements in DNA. If you've never programmed you probably have no idea of how to start. Let's talk about what you need to know to write the program.

Here's a summary of the steps we'll cover:

  1. Identify the required inputs, such as data or information given by the user.

  2. Make an overall design for the program, including the general method—the algorithm—by which the program computes the output.

  3. Decide how the outputs will print; for example, to files or displayed graphically.

  4. Refine the overall design by specifying more detail.

  5. Write the Perl program code.

These steps may be different for shorter or longer programs, but this is the general approach you will take for most of your programming.

3.5.1 The Design Phase

First, you need to conceive a plan for how the program is going to work. This is the overall design of the program and an important step that's usually done before the actual writing of the program begins. Programs are often compared to kitchen recipes, in that they are specific instructions on how to accomplish some task. For instance, you need an idea of what inputs and outputs the program will have. In our example, the input would be the new DNA. You then need a strategy for how the program will do the necessary computing to calculate the desired output from the input.

In our example, the program first needs to collect information from the user: namely, where is the DNA? (This information can be the name of a file that contains the computer representation of the DNA sequence.) The program needs to allow the user to type in the name of a datafile, maybe from the computer screen or from a web page. Then the program has to check if the file exists (and complain if not, as might happen, for instance, if the user misspelled the name) and finally open the file and read in the DNA before continuing.

This simple step deserves some comment. You can put the DNA directly into the program code and avoid having to write this whole part of the program. But by designing the program to read in the DNA, it's more useful, because you won't have to rewrite the program every time you get some new DNA. It's a simple, even obvious idea, but very powerful.

The data your program uses to compute is called the input . Input can come from files, from other programs, from users running the program, from forms filled out on web sites, from email messages, and so forth. Most programs read in some form of input; some programs don't.

Let's add the list of regulatory elements to the actual program code. You can ask for a file that contains this list, as we did with the DNA, and have the program be capable of searching different lists of regulatory elements. However, in this case, the list you will use isn't going to change, so why bother the user with inputting the name of another file?

Now that we have the DNA and the list of regulatory elements you have to decide in general terms how the program is actually going to search for each regulatory element in the DNA. This step is obviously the critical one, so make sure you get it right. For instance, you want the program to run quickly enough, if the speed of the program is an important consideration.

This is the problem of choosing the correct algorithm for the job. An algorithm is a design for computing a problem (I'll say more about it in a minute). For instance, you may decide to take each regulatory element in turn and search through the DNA from beginning to end for that element before going on to the next one. Or perhaps you may decide to go through the DNA only once, and at each position check each of the regulatory elements to see if it is present. Is there be any advantage to one way or the other? Can you sort the list of regulatory elements so your search can proceed more quickly? For now, let's just say that your choice of algorithm is important.

The final part of the design is to provide some form of output for the results. Perhaps you want the results displayed on a web page, as a simple list on the computer screen, in a printable file, or perhaps all of the above. At this stage, you may need to ask the user for a filename to save the output.

This brings up the problem of how to display results. This question is actually a critically important one. The ideal solution is to display the results in a way that shows the user at a glance the salient features of the computation. You can use graphics, color, maps, little bouncing balls over the unexpected result: there are many options. A program that outputs results that are hard to read is clearly not doing a good job. In fact, output that makes the salient results hard to find or understand can completely negate all the effort you put into writing an elegant program. Enough said for now.

There are several strategies employed by programmers to help create good overall designs. Usually, any program but the smallest is written in several small but interconnecting parts. (We'll see lots of this as we proceed in later chapters.) What will the parts be, and how will they interconnect? The field of software engineering addresses these kinds of issues. At this point I only want to point out that they are very important and mention some of the ways programmers address the need for design.

There are many design methodologies; each have their dedicated adherents. The best approach is to learn what is available and use the best methodology for the job at hand. For instance, in this book I'm teaching a style of programming called imperative programming , relying on dividing a problem into interacting procedures or subroutines (see Chapter 6), known as structured design. Another popular style is called object-oriented programming, which is also supported by Perl.

If you're working in a large group of programmers on a big project, the design phase can be very formal and may even be done by different people than the programmers themselves. On the other end of the scale, you will find solitary programmers who just start writing, developing a plan as they write the code. There is no one best way that works for everyone. But no matter how you approach it, as a beginner you still need to have some sort of design in mind before you start writing code.

3.5.2 Algorithms

An algorithm is the design, or plan, for the computation done by a computer program. (It's actually a tricky term to define, outside of a formal mathematical system, but this is a reasonable definition.) An algorithm is implemented by coding it in a specific computer language, but the algorithm is the idea of the computation. It's often well represented in pseudocode, which gives the idea of a program without actually being a real computer program.

Most programs do simple things. They get filenames from users, open the files, and read in the data. They perform simple calculations and display the results. These are the types of algorithms you'll learn here.

However, the science of algorithms is a deep and fruitful one, with many important implications for bioinformatics. Algorithms can be designed to find new ways of analyzing biological data and of discovering new scientific results. There are certainly many problems in biology whose solutions could be, and will be, substantially advanced by inventing new algorithms.

The science of algorithms includes many clever techniques. As a beginning programmer, you needn't worry about them just yet. At this stage, an introductory chapter in a beginning tutorial on programming, it's not reasonable to go into details about algorithmic methods. Your first task is just to learn how to write in some programming language. But if you keep at it, you'll start to learn the techniques. A decent textbook to keep around as a reference is a good investment for a serious programmer (see Appendix A).

In the current example that counts regulatory elements in DNA, I suggest a way of proceeding. Take each regulatory element in turn, and search through the DNA for it, before proceeding to the next regulatory element. Other algorithms are also possible; in fact, this is one example from the general problem called string matching , which is one of the most important for bioinformatics, and the study of which has resulted in a variety of clever algorithms.

Algorithms are usually grouped by such problems or by technique, and there is a wealth of material available. For the practical programmer, some of the most valuable materials are collections of algorithms written in specific languages, that can be incorporated into your programs. Use Appendix A as a starting place. Using the collections of code and books given there, it's possible to incorporate many algorithmic techniques in your Perl code with relative ease.

3.5.3 Pseudocode and Code

Now you have an overall design, including input, algorithm, and output. How do you actually turn this general idea into a design for a program?

A common implementation strategy is to begin by writing what is called pseudo-code. Pseudocode is an informal program, in which there are no details, and formal syntax isn't followed.[2] It doesn't actually run as a program; its purpose is to flesh out an idea of the overall design of a program in a quick and informal way.

[2] Syntax refers to the rules of grammar. English syntax decrees, "Go to school" not "School go to." Programming languages also have syntax rules.

For example, in an actual Perl program you might write a bit of code called a subroutine (see Chapter 6), in this case, a subroutine that gets an answer from a user typing at the keyboard. Such a subroutine may look like this:

sub getanswer {

print "Type in your answer here :";

my $answer = ;

chomp $answer;

return $answer;


But in pseudocode, you might just say:


and worry about the details later.

Here's an example of pseudocode for the program I've been discussing:

get the name of DNAfile from the user

read in the DNA from the DNAfile
for each regulatory element

if element is in DNA, then

add one to the count
print count


Comments are parts of Perl source code that are used as an aid to understanding what the program does. Anything from a # sign to the end of a line is considered a comment and is ignored by the Perl interpreter. (The exception is the first line of many Perl programs, which looks something like this: #!/usr/bin/perl; see Section 4.2.3 in Chapter 4.)

Comments are of considerable importance in keeping code useful. They typically include a discussion of the overall purpose and design of the program, examples of how to use the program, and detailed notes interspersed throughout the code explaining why that code is there and what it does. In general, a good programmer writes good comments as an integral part of the program. You'll see comments in all the programming examples in this book.

This is important: your code has to be readable by humans as well as computers.

Comments can also be useful when debugging misbehaving programs. If you're having trouble figuring out where a program is going wrong, you can try to selectively comment out different parts of the code. If you find a section that, when commented out, removes the problem, you can then narrow down the part you've commented out until you have a fairly short section of code in which you know where the problem is. This is often a useful debugging approach.

Comments can be used when you turn pseudocode into Perl source code. Pseudocode is not Perl code, so the Perl interpreter will complain about any pseudocode that is not commented out. You can comment out the pseudocode by placing # signs at the beginning of all pseudocode lines:

#get the name of DNAfile from the user

#read in the DNA from the DNAfile
#for each regulatory element

# if element is in DNA, then

# add one to the count
#print count

As you expand your pseudocode design into Perl code, you can uncomment the Perl code by removing the # signs. In this way you may have a mixture of Perl and pseudocode, but you can run and test the Perl parts; the Perl interpreter simply ignores commented-out lines.

You can even leave the complete pseudocode design, commented out, intact in the program. This leaves an outline of the program's design that may come in handy when you or someone else tries to read or modify the code.

We've now reached the point where we're ready for actual Perl programming. In Chapter 4 you will learn Perl syntax and begin programming in Perl. As you do, remember the initial phase of designing your program, followed by the cycle you will spend most of your time in: editing the program, running the program, and revising the program.

Chapter 4. Sequences and Strings

In this chapter you will begin to write Perl programs that manipulate biological sequence data, that is, DNA and proteins. Once you have the sequences in the computer, you'll start writing programs that do the following with the sequence data:

  • Transcribe DNA to RNA

  • Concatenate sequences

  • Make the reverse complement of sequences

  • Read sequence data from files

You'll also write programs that give information about your sequences. How GC-rich is your DNA? How hydrophobic is your protein? You'll see programming techniques you can use to answer these and similar questions.

The Perl skills you will learn in this chapter involve the basics of the language. Here are some of those basics:

  • Scalar variables

  • Array variables

  • String operations such as substitution and translation

  • Reading data from files

4.1 Representing Sequence Data

The majority of this book deals with manipulating symbols that represent the biological sequences of DNA and proteins. The symbols used in bioinformatics to represent these sequences are the same symbols biologists have been using in the literature for this same purpose.

As stated earlier, DNA is composed of four building blocks: the nucleic acids, also called nucleotides or bases. Proteins are composed of 20 building blocks, the amino acids, also called residues. Fragments of proteins are called peptides. Both DNA and proteins are essentially polymers, made from their building blocks attached end to end. So it's possible to summarize the structure of a DNA molecule or protein by simply giving the sequence of bases or amino acids.

These are brief definitions; I'm assuming you are either already familiar with them or are willing to consult an introductory textbook on molecular biology for more specific details. Table 4-1 shows bases; add a sugar and you get the nucleotides adenosine, guanosine, cytidine, thymidine, and uridine. You can further add a phosphate and get the nucleotides adenylic acid, guanylic acid, cytidylic acid, thymidylic acid, and uridylic acid. A nucleic acid is a chemically linked sequence of nucleotides. A peptide is a small number of joined amino acids; a longer chain is a polypeptide. A protein is a biologically functional unit made of one or more polypeptides. A residue is an amino acid in a polypeptide chain.

For expediency, the names of the nucleic acids and the amino acids are often represented as one- or three-letter codes, as shown in Table 4-1 and Table 4-2. (This book mostly uses the one-letter codes for amino acids.)

Table 4-1. Standard IUB/IUPAC nucleic acid codes


Nucleic Acid(s)












A or C (amino)


A or G (purine)


A or T (weak)


C or G (strong)


C or T (pyrimidine)


G or T (keto)


A or C or G


A or C or T


A or G or T


C or G or T


A or G or C or T (any)

Table 4-2. Standard IUB/IUPAC amino acid codes

One-letter code

Amino acid

Three-letter code





Aspartic acid or Asparagine






Aspartic acid



Glutamic acid






















































Glutamic acid or Glutamine


The nucleic acid codes in Table 4-1 include letters for the four basic nucleic acids; they also define single letters for all possible groups of two, three, or four nucleic acids. In most cases in this book, I use only A, C, G, T, U, and N. The letters A, C, G, and T represent the nucleic acids for DNA. U replaces T when DNA is transcribed into ribonucleic acid (RNA). N is the common representation for "unknown," as when a sequencer can't determine a base with certainty. Later on, in Chapter 9, we'll need the other codes, for groups of nucleic acids, when programming restriction maps. Note that the lowercase versions of these single-letter codes is also used on occasion, frequently for DNA, rarely for protein.

The computer-science terminology is a little different from the biology terminology for the codes in Table 4-1 and Table 4-2. In computer-science parlance, these tables define two alphabets, finite sets of symbols that can make strings. A sequence of symbols is called a string. For instance, this sentence is a string. A language is a (finite or infinite) set of strings. In this book, the languages are mainly DNA and protein sequence data. You often hear bioinformaticians referring to an actual sequence of DNA or protein as a "string," as opposed to its representation as sequence data. This is an example of the terminologies of the two disciplines crossing over into one another.

As you've seen in the tables, we'll be representing data as simple letters, just as written on a page. But computers actually use additional codes to represent simple letters. You won't have to worry much about this; just remember that when using your text editor to save as ASCII, or plain text.

ASCII is a way for computers to store textual (and control) data in their memory. Then when a program such as a text editor reads the data, and it knows it's reading ASCII, it can actually draw the letters on the screen in a recognizable fashion because it's programmed to know that particular code. So the bottom line is: ASCII is a code to represent text on a computer.[1]

[1] A new character encoding called Unicode, which can handle all the symbols in all the world's languages, is becoming widely accepted and is supported by Perl as well.
4.2 A Program to Store a DNA Sequence

Let's write a small program that stores some DNA in a variable and prints it to the screen. The DNA is written in the usual fashion, as a string made of the letters A, C, G, and T, and we'll call the variable $DNA. In other words, $DNA is the name of the DNA sequence data used in the program. Note that in Perl, a variable is really the name for some data you wish to use. The name gives you full access to the data. Example 4-1 shows the entire program.

Example 4-1. Putting DNA into the computer

#!/usr/bin/perl -w

# Storing DNA in a variable, and printing it out
# First we store the DNA in a variable called $DNA


# Next, we print the DNA onto the screen

print $DNA;

# Finally, we'll specifically tell the program to exit.


Using what you've already learned about text editors and running Perl programs in Chapter 2, enter the code (or copy it from the book's web site) and save it to a file. Remember to save the program as ASCII or text-only format, or Perl may have trouble reading the resulting file.

The second step is to run the program. The details of how to run a program depend on the type of computer you have (see Chapter 2). Let's say the program is on your computer in a file called example4-1. As you recall from Chapter 2, if you are running this program on Unix or Linux, you type the following in a shell window:

perl example4-1

On a Mac, open the file with the MacPerl application and save it as a droplet, then just double-click on the droplet. On Windows, type the following in an MS-DOS command window:

perl example4 -1

If you've successfully run the program, you'll see the output printed on your computer screen.

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