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Managing local biological databases with the BioSQL module.

BioSQL is a joint effort between the OBF projects (BioPerl, BioJava etc) to support a shared database schema for storing sequence data. In theory, you could load a GenBank file into the database with BioPerl, then using Biopython extract this from the database as a record object with features - and get more or less the same thing as if you had loaded the GenBank file directly as a SeqRecord using SeqIO.

We have some existing documentation (HTML, PDF) for the Biopython interfaces to BioSQL, covering installing Python database adaptors and basic usage of BioSQL. This is a little old, and I am hoping to use this wiki page to update the above documentation in future.

The following text applies to Biopython 1.45 or later (and won’t work with Biopython 1.44).


This is fairly complicated - partly because there are so many options. For example, you can use a range of different SQL database packages (we’ll focus on MySQL), you can have the database on your own computer (the assumption here) or on a separate server, and of course there are usernames and passwords associated with database. And finally the details will also vary depending on your operating system.

This text is based in part on the BioSQL schema INSTALL instructions which also covers alternatives to MySQL.

Installing Required Software

You will need to install some database software plus the associated python library so that Biopython can “talk” to the database. In this example we’ll talk about the most common choice, MySQL. How you do this will also depend on your operating system, for example on a Debian or Ubuntu Linux machine try this:

sudo apt-get install mysql-common mysql-server python-mysqldb

It will also be important to have perl (to run some of the setup scripts). Again, on a Debian or Ubuntu Linux machine try this:

sudo apt-get install perl

You may find perl is already installed.

For Windows users, see BioSQL on Windows.

Downloading the BioSQL Schema & Scripts

Once the software is installed, your next task is to setup a database and import the BioSQL schema (i.e. setup the relevant tables within the database). See BioSQL downloads – you’ll need to unzip the archive.

Alternatively to get the very latest BioSQL, check out their git repository. Or, navigate to the relevant schema file for your database and download just that, e.g. biosqldb-mysql.sql for MySQL. You will also want the NCBI Taxonomy loading perl script, load_ncbi_taxonomy.pl.

Creating the empty database


The following command line should create a new database on your own computer called bioseqdb, belonging to the root user account:

mysqladmin -u root create bioseqdb

We can then tell MySQL to load the BioSQL scheme we downloaded above. Change to the scripts subdirectory from the unzipped BioSQL download, then:

mysql -u root bioseqdb < biosqldb-mysql.sql

You can have a quick play using the mysql command line tool, for example:

mysql --user=root bioseqdb -e "show tables"


| Tables_in_bioseqdb         |
| biodatabase                |
| bioentry                   |
| bioentry_dbxref            |
| bioentry_path              |
| bioentry_qualifier_value   |
| bioentry_reference         |
| bioentry_relationship      |
| biosequence                |
| comment                    |
| dbxref                     |
| dbxref_qualifier_value     |
| location                   |
| location_qualifier_value   |
| ontology                   |
| reference                  |
| seqfeature                 |
| seqfeature_dbxref          |
| seqfeature_path            |
| seqfeature_qualifier_value |
| seqfeature_relationship    |
| taxon                      |
| taxon_name                 |
| term                       |
| term_dbxref                |
| term_path                  |
| term_relationship          |
| term_relationship_term     |
| term_synonym               |

Or, to look inside a table:

mysql --user=root bioseqdb -e "select * from bioentry;"

This should return no rows as the table is empty.


IMPORTANT NOTE FOR POSTRESQL USERS: Before loading the biosqldb-pg.sql schema into Postgres you must delete the two RULES named rule_bioentry_i1 and rule_bioentry_i2; lines 771-791 in biosqldb-pg.sql BioSQL version 1.0.1

First you need to set up user permissions, if you are not sure how to do this, try:

su - postgres
createuser <your user name>

Then, assuming you are logged-in as and Postgres is running on the local machine, you should be able to do the following:

createdb biosqldb
psql biosqldb < biosqldb-pg.sql

Run psql and type enter *\d * to see all the entities created.

NCBI Taxonomy

The BioSQL package includes a perl script under scripts/load_ncbi_taxonomy.pl to download and update the taxonomy tables. The script should be able to download the files it needs from the NCBI taxonomy FTP site automatically.

Prior to Biopython 1.49, if you wanted to work with the NCBI taxonomy database it was good idea to pre-load the NCBI taxonomy before you start trying to load sequences into the database. This isn’t so important with Biopython 1.49 onwards, where you can instead opt to have the information needed downloaded as needed from Entrez.

To update the NCBI taxonomy, change to the scripts subdirectory from the unzipped BioSQL download, then:

./load_ncbi_taxonomy.pl --dbname bioseqdb --driver mysql --dbuser root --download true

For PostgreSQL you need to have the perl DBD-Pg module installed - Using CPAN: “perl -MCPAN -e ‘install DBI’; perl -MCPAN -e ‘install DBD::Pg’”. Substitute Pg for mysql in the above command.

There is about 10MB to fetch, so it can take a little while (and doesn’t give any feedback while this happens). If you are worried, open a file browser window and check to see it is downloading a file called taxdump.tar.gz to the taxdata subdirectory.

You should see this output at the command prompt - be warned that some of these steps do take a while (especially rebuilding nested set left/right values):

Loading NCBI taxon database in taxdata:
        ... retrieving all taxon nodes in the database
        ... reading in taxon nodes from nodes.dmp
        ... insert / update / delete taxon nodes
        ... (committing nodes)
        ... rebuilding nested set left/right values
        ... reading in taxon names from names.dmp
        ... deleting old taxon names
        ... inserting new taxon names
        ... cleaning up

This might be a good point for a tea break - I didn’t time this but it was over ten minutes.

One the initial tables have been populated, re-running the script is much faster. You can run this script again to update the taxonomy tables, which the NCBI do add to regularly. You may want to setup a scheduled job to do this automatically (say once a fortnight).

P.S. It is a particularly good idea to do update the taxonomy if you will be working with the left/right values in the taxon table (see also BioSQL enhancement request GitHub issue 14 (Redmine 2493)). Biopython 1.67 onwards will do this when writing to the taxon tables.

Note Biopython ignores these optional fields when loading or retrieving sequences - instead using just the parent link. See http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/a/network/2002/11/27/bioconf.html for more about how this alternative tree representation works.

Running the unit tests

Because there are so many ways you could have setup your BioSQL database, you have to tell the unit test a few bits of information by editing the file Tests/setup_BioSQL.py and filling in the following fields:

DBTYPE = 'mysql'

and a little lower down,

DBHOST = 'localhost'
DBUSER = 'root'
TESTDB = 'biosql_test'

Change these to match your setup. You can then run the BioSQL unit tests as normal, e.g.

python run_tests.py test_BioSQL test_BioSQL_SeqIO

For PostgreSQL, use:

DBDRIVER = 'psycopg2'
DBTYPE = 'pg'

Creating a (sub) database

BioSQL lets us define named “sub” databases or “namespaces” within the single SQL database (which we called bioseqdb earlier). For this example, lets create a one for some orchid sequences:

from BioSQL import BioSeqDatabase
server = BioSeqDatabase.open_database(driver="MySQLdb", user="root",
                     passwd = "", host = "localhost", db="bioseqdb")
db = server.new_database("orchids", description="Just for testing")
server.commit() #On Biopython 1.49 or older, server.adaptor.commit()

(If you are using PostgreSQL rather than MySQL, just change the driver argument to “psycopg2” instead. The same applies to the other examples in this document)

The commit call tells the database to save the changes so far (commit the SQL transaction). It is up to you to decide when to commit the SQL transaction(s), and/or rollback changes, rather than having Biopython try and decide for you and risk getting it wrong. See Explicit is better than implicit (The Zen of Python).

There should now be a single row in the biodatabase table for our new orchid namespace. You can check this at the command line:


mysql --user=root bioseqdb -e "select * from biodatabase;"


psql -c "SELECT * FROM biodatabase;" bioseqdb

Which should give something like this (assuming you haven’t done any other testing yet):

| biodatabase_id | name    | authority | description      |
|              1 | orchids | NULL      | Just for testing |

Now that we have setup an orchids namespace within our biosqldb MySQL database, lets add some sequences to it.

Loading Sequences into a database

When loading sequences into a BioSQL database with Biopython we have to provide annotated SeqRecord objects. This gives us another excuse to use the SeqIO module! A quick recap on reading in sequences as SeqRecords, based on one of the orchid examples in the Biopython Tutorial:

from Bio import Entrez
from Bio import SeqIO
handle = Entrez.efetch(db="nuccore", id="6273291,6273290,6273289", rettype="gb", retmode="text")
for seq_record in SeqIO.parse(handle, "genbank") :
    print seq_record.id, seq_record.description[:50] + "..."
    print "Sequence length %i," % len(seq_record.seq),
    print "from: %s" % seq_record.annotations['source']

The expected output is below, note we have three records with a total of nine features:

AF191665.1 Opuntia marenae rpl16 gene; chloroplast gene for c...
Sequence length 902, 3 features, from: chloroplast Opuntia marenae
AF191664.1 Opuntia clavata rpl16 gene; chloroplast gene for c...
Sequence length 899, 3 features, from: chloroplast Grusonia clavata
AF191663.1 Opuntia bradtiana rpl16 gene; chloroplast gene for...
Sequence length 899, 3 features, from: chloroplast Opuntia bradtianaa

Now, instead of printing things on screen, let’s add these three records to a new (empty) orchid database:

from Bio import Entrez
from Bio import SeqIO
from BioSQL import BioSeqDatabase
server = BioSeqDatabase.open_database(driver="MySQLdb", user="root",
                     passwd = "", host = "localhost", db="bioseqdb")
db = server["orchids"]
handle = Entrez.efetch(db="nuccore", id="6273291,6273290,6273289", rettype="gb", retmode="text")
count = db.load(SeqIO.parse(handle, "genbank"))
print "Loaded %i records" % count
server.commit() #On Biopython 1.49 or older, server.adaptor.commit()

Again, you must explicitly call commit to record the SQL transaction which is otherwise left pending.

The db.load() function should have returned the number of records loaded (three in this example), and again have a look in the database and you should see new rows in several tables.

The bioentry and biosequence tables should have three new rows:

mysql --user=root bioseqdb -e "select * from bioentry;"
mysql --user=root bioseqdb -e "select * from biosequence;"

The should also be nine new features:

mysql --user=root bioseqdb -e "select * from seqfeature;"

Next, we’ll try and load these three records back from the database.

Extracting Sequences from the database

This continues from the previous example, where we loaded three records into an orchids database (namespace):

from BioSQL import BioSeqDatabase
server = BioSeqDatabase.open_database(driver="MySQLdb", user="root",
                     passwd = "", host = "localhost", db="bioseqdb")
db = server["orchids"]
for identifier in ['6273291', '6273290', '6273289'] :
    seq_record = db.lookup(gi=identifier)
    print seq_record.id, seq_record.description[:50] + "..."
    print "Sequence length %i," % len(seq_record.seq)


AF191665.1 Opuntia marenae rpl16 gene; chloroplast gene for c...
Sequence length 902
AF191664.1 Opuntia clavata rpl16 gene; chloroplast gene for c...
Sequence length 899
AF191663.1 Opuntia bradtiana rpl16 gene; chloroplast gene for...
Sequence length 899

The objects you get back from BioSQL act like a SeqRecord object with a Seq object as the sequence, but they are not exactly the same. You actually get their BioSQL database equivalent, a DBSeqRecord object with a DBSeq object for the sequence. These will only load the sequence and annotation from the database on demand.

There are other ways to pull out records - the ‘db’ object here acts somewhat like a dictionary (including supporting deleting entries from their key). The python-dictionary-keys are actually the database-primary-keys used inside the database for the bioentry table. e.g.

from BioSQL import BioSeqDatabase
server = BioSeqDatabase.open_database(driver="MySQLdb", user="root",
                     passwd = "", host = "localhost", db="bioseqdb")
db = server["orchids"]
print "This database contains %i records" % len(db)
for key, record in db.iteritems():
    print "Key %r maps to a sequence record with id %s" % (key, record.id)

Deleting a (sub) database

As mentioned above, BioSQL lets us define named “sub” databases (aka namespaces) within the single SQL database (which we called bioseqdb). In the previous example, we created a sub-database for some orchid sequences. The following code will delete the orchid database (and all the records in it):

from BioSQL import BioSeqDatabase
server = BioSeqDatabase.open_database(driver="MySQLdb", user="root",
                     passwd = "", host = "localhost", db="bioseqdb")
server.commit() #On Biopython 1.49 or older, server.adaptor.commit()

Again, you must explicitly finialise the SQL transaction with a commit to apply this change.

There should now be one less row in the biodatabase table, check this at the command line:

mysql --user=root bioseqdb -e "select * from biodatabase;"

You can also check that the three orchid sequences have gone from the other tables.

How is the data stored

If you need or want to go direct to the data, bypassing the Biopython methods to retrieve records, then it would help to know more about how the underlying tables are used. For this, we refer you to the BioSQL documentation, starting with their Schema Overview and the page on Annotation Mapping.

MySQL Tips and Tricks

If you are getting timeout errors, check to see if your SQL server has any orphaned threads.

mysql --user=root bioseqdb -e "SHOW INNODB STATUS\G" | grep "thread id"

And if there are, assuming you are the only person using this database, you might try killing them off using the thread id given by the above command:

mysql --user=root bioseqdb -e "KILL 123;"

Use at your own risk!


Jython is supported for both PostgreSQL and MySQL from version 1.62. Usage is almost fully transparent: You access the databases using the exact same configuration parameters as specified above. The only issue to take into consideration is that you will need the correct JBDC driver in your CLASSPATH. For both databases you should use the official JDBC drivers (available here for PosgreSQL and here for MySQL)