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an interactive explorer for single-cell transcriptomics data

cellxgene is an interactive data explorer for single-cell transcriptomics datasets, such as those coming from the Human Cell Atlas. Leveraging modern web development techniques to enable fast visualizations of at least 1 million cells, we hope to enable biologists and computational researchers to explore their data, and to demonstrate general, scalable, and reusable patterns for scientific data visualization.

getting started

You'll need python 3.6 and Google Chrome. (Warning: Python 3.7 is not supported at this time) The web UI is tested on OSX and Windows using Chrome, and the python CLI is tested on OSX and Ubuntu (via WSL/Windows). It should work on other platforms, but if you run into trouble let us know (see help below).

To install run

pip install cellxgene

To start exploring a dataset call

cellxgene launch dataset.h5ad --open

If you want an example dataset download this file and then call

cellxgene launch pbmc3k.h5ad --open

You should see your web browser open with the following

Note: automatic opening of the browser with the --open flag only works on OS X, on other platforms you'll need to directly point to the provided link in your browser.

There are several options available, such as:

  • --layout to specify the layout as tsne or umap
  • --title to show a title on the explorer
  • --open to automatically open the web browser after launching (OS X only)

To see all options call

cellxgene launch --help

There is an additional subcommand called cellxgene prepare that takes an existing dataset in one of several formats and applies minimal preprocessing and reformatting so that launch can use it (see the next section for more info on prepare).

data formatting


The launch command assumes that the data is stored in the .h5ad format from the anndata library. It also assumes that certain computations have already been performed. Briefly, the .h5ad format wraps a two-dimensional ndarray and stores additional metadata as "annotations" for either observations (referred to as obs and obsm) or variables (var and varm). cellxgene launch makes the following assumptions about your data (we recommend loading and inspecting your data using scanpy to validate these assumptions)

  • an obs field has a unique identifier for every cell (you can specify which field to use with the --obs-names option, by default it will use the value of data.obs_names)
  • a var field has a unique identifier for every gene (you can specify which field to use with the --var-names option, by default it will use the value of data.var_names)
  • an obsm field contains the two-dimensional coordinates for the layout that you want to render (e.g. X_tsne for the tsne layout or X_umap for the umap layout)
  • any additional obs fields will be rendered as per-cell continuous or categorical metadata by the app (e.g. louvain cluster assignments)


The prepare command is included to help you format your data. It uses scanpy under the hood. This is especially useful if you are starting with raw unanalyzed data and are unfamiliar with scanpy.

To prepare from an existing .h5ad file use

cellxgene prepare dataset.h5ad --output=dataset-processed.h5ad

This will load the input data, perform PCA and nearest neighbor calculations, compute umap and tsne layouts and louvain cluster assignments, and save the results in a new file called dataset-processed.h5ad that can be loaded using cellxgene launch. Data can be loaded from several formats, including .h5ad .loom and a 10-Genomics-formatted mtx directory. Several options are available, including running one of the preprocessing recipes included with scanpy, which include steps like cell filtering and gene selection. To learn more about the recipes please see the scanpy documentation.

Depending on the options chosen, prepare can take a long time to run (a few minutes for datasets with 10-100k cells, up to an hour or more for datasets with >100k cells). If you want prepare to run faster we recommend using the sparse option and only computing the layout for umap, using a call like this

cellxgene prepare dataset.h5ad --output=dataset-processed.h5ad --layout=umap --sparse

To see all options call

cellxgene prepare --help

Note: cellxgene prepare will only perform louvain clustering if you have the python-igraph and louvain packages installed. To make sure they are installed alongside cellxgene use

pip install cellxgene[louvain]

If the aforementioned optional package installation fails, you can also install these packages directly:

pip install python-igraph louvain>=0.6

conda and virtual environments

If you use conda and want to create a conda environment for cellxgene you can use the following commands

conda create --yes -n cellxgene python=3.6
conda activate cellxgene
pip install cellxgene

Or you can create a virtual environment by using

python3.6 -m venv ${ENV_NAME}
source ${ENV_NAME}/bin/activate
pip install cellxgene


We have included a dockerfile to conveniently run cellxgene from docker.

  1. Build the image docker build . -t cellxgene
  2. Run the container and mount data docker run -v "$PWD/example-dataset/:/data/" -p 5005:5005 cellxgene launch --host data/pbmc3k.h5ad
    • You will need to use --host to have the container listen to incoming requests from the browser


questions about data formatting

Someone sent me a directory of 10X-Genomics data with a mtx file and I've never used scanpy, can I use cellxgene?

Yep! This should only take a couple steps. We'll assume your data is in a folder called data/ and you've successfully installed cellxgene with the louvain packages as described above. Just run

cellxgene prepare data/ --output=data-processed.h5ad --layout=umap

Depending on the size of the dataset, this may take some time. Once it's done, call

cellxgene launch data-processed.h5ad --layout=umap --open

And your web browser should open with an interactive view of your data.

In my prepare command I received the following error Warning: louvain module is not installed, no clusters will be calculated. To fix this please install cellxgene with the optional feature louvain enabled

Louvain clustering requires additional dependencies that are somewhat complex, so we don't include them by default. For now, you need to specify that you want these packages by using

pip install cellxgene[louvain]

I ran prepare and I'm getting results that look unexpected

You might want to try running one of the preprocessing recipes included with scanpy (read more about them here). You can specify this with the --recipe option, such as

cellxgene prepare data/ --output=data-processed.h5ad --recipe=zheng17

It should be easy to run prepare then call cellxgene launch a few times with different settings to explore different behaviors. We may explore adding other preprocessing options in the future.

I have extra metadata that I want to add to my dataset

Currently this is not supported directly, but you should be able to do this manually using scanpy. For example, this notebook shows adding the contents of a csv file with metadata to an anndata object. For now, you could do this manually on your data in the same way and then save out the result before loading into cellxgene.

What part of the anndata objects does cellxgene pull in for visualization?

  • .obs and .var annotations are use to extract metadata for filtering
  • .X is used to display expression (histograms, scatterplot & colorscale) and to compute differential expression
  • .obsm is used for layout
questions about installing and building

I tried to pip install cellxgene and got a weird error about missing paths to an HDF5 library?

You probably just need to install HDF5 first. If you're on a mac, you can simply brew install hdf5 and then try pip install cellxgene again.

I tried to pip install cellxgene and got another weird error I don't understand

This may happen, especially as we work out bugs in our installation process! Please create a new Github issue, explain what you did, and include all the error messages you saw. It'd also be super helpful if you call pip freeze and include the full output alongside your issue.

I'm following the developer instructions and get an error about "missing files and directories” when trying to build the client

This is likely because you do not have node and npm installed, we recommend using nvm if you're new to using these tools.

questions about algorithms

How are you computing and sorting differential expression results?

Currently we use a Welch's t-test implementation including the same variance overestimation correction as used in scanpy. We sort the tscore to identify the top N genes, and then filter to remove any that fall below a cutoff log fold change value, which can help remove spurious test results. The default threshold is 0.01 and can be changed using the option --diffexp-lfc-cutoff. We can explore adding support for other test types in the future.

developer guide

This project has made a few key design choices

  • The front-end is built with regl (a webgl library), react, redux, d3, and blueprint to handle rendering large numbers of cells with lots of complex interactivity
  • The app is designed with a client-server model that can support a range of existing analysis packages for backend computational tasks (currently built for scanpy)
  • The client uses fast cross-filtering to handle selections and comparisons across subsets of data

Depending on your background and interests, you might want to contribute to the frontend, or backend, or both!

If you are interested in working on cellxgene development, we recommend cloning the project from Gitub. First you'll need the following installed on your machine

  • python 3.6
  • node and npm (we recommend using nvm if this is your first time with node)

Then clone the project

git clone

Build the client web assets by calling this from inside the cellxgene folder


Install all requirements (we recommend doing this inside a virtual environment)

pip install -e .

You can start the app while developing either by calling cellxgene or by calling python -m server. We recommend using the --debug flag to see more output, which you can include when reporting bugs.

If you have any questions about developing or contributing, come hang out with us by joining the CZI Science Slack and posting in the #cellxgene-dev channel.

development roadmap

cellxgene is still very much in development, and we've love to include the community as we plan new features to work on. We are thinking about working on the following features over the next 3-12 months. If you are interested in updates, want to give feedback, want to contribute, or have ideas about other features we should work on, please contact us

  • Visualizaling spatial metadata Image-based transcriptomics methods also generate large cell by gene matrices, alongside rich metadata about spatial location; we would like to render this information in cellxgene
  • Visualizing trajectories Trajectory analyses infer progression along some ordering or pseudotime; we would like cellxgene to render the results of these analyses when they have been performed
  • Deploy to web Many projects release public data browser websites alongside their publicatons; we would like to make it easy for anyone to deploy cellxgene to a custom URL with their own dataset that they own and operate
  • HCA Integration The Human Cell Atlas is generating a large corpus of single-cell expression data and will make it available through the Data Coordination Platform; we would like cellxgene to be one of several different portals for browsing these data


We warmly welcome contributions from the community! Please submit any bug reports and feature requests through Github issues. Please submit any direct contributions by forking the repository, creating a branch, and submitting a Pull Request. It'd be great for PRs to include test cases and documentation updates where relevant, though we know the core test suite is itself still a work in progress. And all code contributions and dependencies must be compatible with the project's open-source license (MIT). If you have any questions about this stuff, just ask!

inspiration and collaboration

We've been heavily inspired by several other related single-cell visualization projects, including the UCSC Cell Browswer, Cytoscape, Xena, ASAP, Gene Pattern, and many others. We hope to explore collaborations where useful as this community works together on improving interactive visualization for single-cell data.

We were inspired by Mike Bostock and the crossfilter team for the design of our filtering implementation.

We have been working closely with the scanpy team to integrate with their awesome analysis tools. Special thanks to Alex Wolf, Fabian Theis, and the rest of the team for their help during development and for providing an example dataset.

We are eager to explore integrations with other computational backends such as Seurat or Bioconductor

help and contact

Have questions, suggestions, or comments? You can come hang out with us by joining the CZI Science Slack and posting in the #cellxgene-users channel. As mentioned above, please submit any feature requests or bugs as Github issues. We'd love to hear from you!


This project was started with the sole goal of empowering the scientific community to explore and understand their data. As such, we encourage other scientific tool builders in academia or industry to adopt the patterns, tools, and code from this project, and reach out to us with ideas or questions. All code is freely available for reuse under the MIT license.