Video Tip of the Week: Genome assemblers and #Docker

Last fall there was a tip I did on Docker, which was starting to pick up a lot of chatter around the genoscenti. It was starting to look like a good solution for some of the problems of reproducibility and re-use of software in genomics–containerize it. Box it up, hand it off. There’s certainly a lot of interest and appeal in the community, but there are still some issues to resolve with rolling out Docker everywhere. However, my impression is that the Docker team and community seems interested and active in evolving the tools to be as broadly useful as possible.

So when this tweet rolled through the #bioinformatics twitter column on my Tweetdeck, I was excited to see this talk by Michael Barton (who has the best twitter handle in the field: @bioinformatics). It’s a terrific example of how Docker can be aimed at some of the problems in the bioinformatics tool space. It’s not the only option, or course. Some workflow resources like Galaxy can cover other features of genomics researchers’ needs. But as a general solution to the problems of comparing software and distributing complete working containers, Docker seems to developing into a very useful strategy.

Here’s the video:

Although this is longer than our typical “tips”, I’d recommend that you carve out some time to watch if you are new to the idea of Docker. In case you don’t have time right now for the talk, here’s a summary. For the first 10 minutes, there’s a gentle introduction for non-genomics nerds about what sequencing is like right now. Then Michael describes how the assembler literature works–with completing claims about the “better” assembler as each new paper comes along. This includes a sample of the types of problems that assemblers are trying to tackle with different strategies.

Around 14min, we begin to look at what it’s like to be the researcher who needs to access some assembler software. Then he describes how different lab groups–like remote islands–can instantly ship their sequence data around today. But that biologists are like “longshoremen for data”: they have to unload, unpack, install, try to get all the right pieces together to make it work in a new lab. We are doing “break bulk” science right now. That was a really terrific assessment of the state of play, I thought.

If you are ok with the other pieces, you can skip to around 16min, where we get to know about a specific example of the benefits of Docker for this type of research. Michael goes on to describe how Docker has helped him to build a system to catalog and evaluate various assemblers. He developed the project called nucleotid.es (pronounced just as “nucleotides”),  which he goes on to describe. It offers details about various assemblers, which have been put into containers that are easy to access and to use to compare different software. There are examples of benchmarks, but you can also use these containers for your own assembly purposes. You can explore the site for more detail and a lot of data on the assembler comparisons that they have already. A good overview of the reasons to do this can also be found in the blog post over there:  Why use containers for scientific software?

At about 25min, some of the constraints and problems they are noted. Fitting Docker into existing infrastructure, and incentivising developers to create Docker containers, can be issues.  But the outcomes–having a better strategy than traditional publication for reproducibility, having ongoing access to the software, and the “deduplication of agony” seems to be worth investigating, for sure. deduplication_of_agony Then Barton describes what the pipeline could look like for a researcher with some new sequence–you can use the data from a variety of assemblers to make decisions about how to proceed, rather than sifting through papers or just using what the lab next door did. And if you have a new assembler, you can use this setup to benchmark it as well.

So if you’ve been hearing about Docker, and have been concerned about access and reproducibility issues around genomics data and software, have a look at this video. It nicely presents the problems we face, and one possible solution, with a concrete example. There may be other useful methods as well–like offering a central portal for uses to access multiple tools, like AutoAsssemblyD has described–but that’s really for a different subset of users. But for the more general problem of software comparisons, benchmarking, and access to bioinformatics tools, Docker seems to offer a useful strategy. And I did a quick PubMed check to see if Docker is percolating through the traditional publication system yet, and found that it is. I found that ballaxy (“a Galaxy-based workflow toolkit for structural bioinformatics”) is offered as a Docker image, which means that having a grasp of Docker going forward may really be useful for software users rather quickly….

Quick links:

nucleotid.es: http://nucleotid.es

Docker: http://www.docker.com

References (and in this case the slide deck):



And other useful and related items from this post:

Automating the Selection Process for a Genome Assembler, JGI Science Highlights. October 17, 2014. http://jgi.doe.gov/automating-selection-process-genome-assembler/

Veras A., Pablo de Sá, Vasco Azevedo, Artur Silva, Rommel Ramos, Institute of Biological Sciences, Federal University Pará, Belém, Pará & Brazil (2013). AutoAssemblyD: a graphical user interface system for several genome assemblers, Bioinformation, 9 (16) 840-841. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.6026/97320630009840

Hildebrandt A.K.,  D. Stockel, N. M. Fischer, L. de la Garza, J. Kruger, S. Nickels, M. Rottig, C. Scharfe, M. Schumann, P. Thiel & H.-P. Lenhof & (2014). ballaxy: web services for structural bioinformatics, Bioinformatics, 31 (1) 121-122. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/bioinformatics/btu574