The Future of Bioinformatics (in Python), part 1 (a)

Chris Lasher wrote a nice blog post naming me as a rabble rouser in the area of "Python in bioinformatics". His post raised a number of interesting points, some of which I'd like to discuss here on my blog.

First, why is Python not more dominant in bioinformatics? I really lay this at the feet of Lincoln Stein, who (from what I can tell) was the dominant force behind BioPerl in the early days. So it worked really well and attracted all sorts of attention and users and actual use. However, I think the tide is shifting away from Perl: from the not-so-imminent release of a complex, backwardsly-incompatible Perl 6, to the massive quantities of completely non-reusable Perl code that have been flung in every direction, people are starting to get sick of Perl. also, a lot of people in academia are moving towards Python for bioinformatics, if not in a very coordinated way: when I left Caltech, two of the three heavy bioinformatics groups were using Python, and when I arrived at MSU I found several groups doing bioinformatics in Python and only one using Perl (and, at that, mainly because they rely on GMOD).

Heck, there are a lot of Python-in-bio sightings these days. I just went to a talk by Rob Knight, who works on the human microbiome project, and he mentioned developing PyCogent with some collaborators. A lab on campus uses TAMO for motif searching. Cistematic and a variety of tools from the Wold Lab use Python. James Taylor is working hard on developing Galaxy into a general purpose tool. So I don't despair for Python's presence in biology.

I think the world is moving, medium-to-long-term, towards the use of Perl for scripting-level work, Python for frameworks and re-usable software, and R for statistical analysis of data sets (BioConductor is also popping up a lot these days). Personally I think this is the right approach and bodes well in the long term.

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Second, Chris says,

I think I have not worked with Biopython because I am not encouraged to do so, and am actually discouraged, because of research, and the current culture of academia.

I, too, am struggling with the problem that research scientists, somewhat shockingly, are more interested in doing (and funding) novel research than in building re-usable software. OK, I'm being a bit sarcastic, but that's only a mildly sarcastic statement, really; while it's understandable that researchers want to do research, the rise of large-scale data and computational methods in biology unambiguously argues for computational competence in the next generation of researchers. Part of computational competence is knowing how to get stuff done effectively and correctly, not to mention with reusable software when possible. I am actually shocked that there's so little focus on Software Carpentry-like skills in science and education, and I'm doing my best to push on that front here at MSU (see my very first course here, which is introducing Python, Subversion and automated testing to CSE undergrads).

That computing in biology sucks is not by any means a novel observation; see this nice article, Computational Biology Resources Lack Persistence and Usability, for example. My take on things is that the funding bodies simply need to recognize the utility of software maintenance, which is slowly happening, and that the undergrad and graduate departments need to adapt to the future by teaching this stuff. But there's no question it's going to be Darwinian out there -- as Stewart Brand says, "Once a new technology starts rolling, if you're not part of the steamroller, you're part of the road." Hopefully some of us can be the steamroller and not the road, yeh?

So what's my solution, you might ask? Well, now that I'm a bigshot professor, I'm going to be encouraging (well, demanding where possible) that my students and collaborators use good software development techniques and release their source code and data. But my real "secret" -- and please steal it if you can :) -- is that I hope to continue building a real infrastructure that can underlie solutions to my various research problems. If I can build a re-usable core of well-tested tools on top of a solid framework, I should be able to do research faster, better, smarter, and more reliably than my colleagues and competitors. That should translate into more publications, more grants, and more problems actually solved. (I'll let you know how that goes; it's early days still.)

That, incidentally, is why you should ignore people who tell you not work on your coding or on general-purpose libraries: because if it's useful to you, it's worth doing right and making it useful to yourself in the future.

This is also one of the reasons why I'm investing a substantial amount of my scarcest resource (time) in pygr. pygr is a solution for scalable storage, retrieval, and named persistence of sequence-associated data, and it works fantastically well. The real problem with pygr is the high barrier to entry, and that's what we're working on lowering, if only so that my own students will have less trouble learning it.

Some other time I'll talk about why pygr and pygr-like solutions are the right solution to reusability in bioinformatics.

So, in summary: don't worry, be happy, Python is coming to bioinformatics one way or another. And don't worry, just work hard at becoming the steamroller (and not the road) by improving your coding skills and becoming a general-purpose computational scientist, or at least general-purpose bioinformatician. You won't regret it.

Heck, you can always come work for me, right? ;)

--titus


Legacy Comments

Posted by Gregg Lind on 2008-09-15 at 09:34.

In addition to the general "I get a paper out of it if I rebuild it
myself, and nothing but headaches if I work on someone else's project"
that plagues all academic software dev, there are a few python
specific problems at work.    1.  RPy is a little stale, and could
probably use some updating, to make graphics easier to use.    2.
There exists tension between Numpy and R about which is the proper
tool for analysis.      In the lab I worked in at the U of MN, we
switched over to python in 2005, away from perl.

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