Tip of the Week: NCBI’s FLink

Today I’d like to introduce you to FLink, which is a tool that NCBI released earlier this year, and we recently came across  during our ‘regularly scheduled’ update to our NCBI BioSystems tutorial. Although FLink was originally designed as a companion tool to BioSystems it has utility beyond linking a list to BioSystems. FLink, short for Frequency weighted Links and based on a German word for nimble,  links items from one NCBI database to those of another in a weighted and meaningful way.

In the tip movie I do an example of inputting a gene ID list through an Entrez keyword search on “schizophrenia”, and then outputting associated BioSystems items as an example of how you could go from a list of genes – maybe from an array analysis or other – and analyzing for associated BioSystems over-represented in the gene list. I did not use any pauses while recording so the speed that you see is the real tool speed. Being able to do the analysis directly from an Entrez search is VERY convenient, but by no means the only approach that you could take. The documentation for FLink – both the ‘ABOUT‘ and ‘HELP‘ pages – are easy to follow & offer clear descriptions of how to use the tool. I’d suggestion you just try running your favorite list through FLink & seeing what you can learn about your list. If you have any trouble or questions that this quick tip doesn’t answer, check out NCBI’s documentation, or (shameless plug) ask your question some Thursday through our WYP? open thread & we’ll try to answer.

Another cool function that I didn’t get to demonstrate in the movie is that FLink has sort of a history function in that the IDs input during one session remain in FLink for a period of time & can be relinked, or linked to a different database. I find it a bit clunky that I have to enter IDs rather than names – if names were acceptable I could have one list of my favorite genes & theoretically input them as either a gene or protein, but with the Entrez search function this is not too much of a problem. In fact, you could do a normal Entrez gene search, click the ‘Send to:’ option on the results page & select ‘File’ and Format=UI list. Then you could upload that file into FLink as your input. I tried that for the term “schizophrenia” and came up with the same 870 gene records that you’ll see in the tip movie. I could also input to FLink from a past Entrez search.

I’m guessing that like most NCBI tools FLink will continue to grow & improve over time. I can’t wait to see what functions are added – for my part I suggest the ability to accept a variety of identifiers, and increasing the number of databases available for FLink analyses. I can see this being a nice way to accomplish a task that we are often asked how to do – namely if dbSNP were added one could theoretically input a list of dbSNP IDs & output a list of gene likely associated with them, though the weighting might need to be adjusted since only gene is likely to link to any individual SNP ID…

Bottom line, check out this cool new resource from NCBI & let them, or us, know what you think about it.