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Viscello for Visualization of Single Cell Data

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Using VisCello for Single Cell Data Visualization

Qin Zhu, Kim Lab & Tan Lab, University of Pennsylvania


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  • You can install VisCello with code below:
devtools::install_github("qinzhu/VisCello") # install
library(VisCello) # load
cello() # launch with example data

Example datasets preprocessed for VisCello

git clone

then in R:

cello("~/Downloads/Celegans.L2.Cello") # Change path if necessary
  • To put in your own dataset into VisCello for visualization, follow guidance below.

General data requirement

  • VisCello requires two main data object - an ExpressionSet object and a Cello object (or list of Cello objects), plus one configuration file. All 3 files must be put inside the same data folder. Each data folder represent one particular study.

    • The ExpressionSet object is a general class from Bioconductor. See for details. The expression matrix holds 3 key datasets: the expression matrix and the normalized count matrix, the meta data for the samples (cells), and the meta data for the genes.
    • The Cello object is an S4 class specifically designed for visualizing subsets of the single cell data - by storing dimension reduction results of (subsets of) cells that are present in the global ExpressionSet, and any local meta information about the cells, such as clustering results.
    • Lastly, a simple configuration file needs to be editted by user to let VisCello know general information about this study.
  • An example can be downloaded from This vignette will describe the preprocessing step for inputing data into VisCello.

Prepare ExpressionSet object

The data-raw folder contains an example dataset and associated meta information from Paul et al. (2015). The files in the folder are:

  • subset_GSE72857.txt: Raw gene expression matrix, with column as cells and rows as genes, rownames must be unique.
  • subset_GSE72857_log2norm.txt: Log2 normalized expression matrix, same dimension as raw matrix. You can also input any other type of normalized data as long as it matches the dimension of raw data.
  • subset_GSE72857_pmeta.txt: Meta data for the cells.

Load the data into R and convert them into ExpressionSet using the following code:

raw_df <- read.table("data-raw/GSE72857_raw.txt")
norm_df <- read.table("data-raw/GSE72857_log2norm.txt")
pmeta <- read.table("data-raw/GSE72857_pmeta.txt")
fmeta <- read.table("data-raw/GSE72857_fmeta.txt")

# Feature meta MUST have rownames the same as the rownames of expression matrix - this can be gene name or gene id (but must not have duplicates).
rownames(fmeta) <- fmeta$id

eset <- new("ExpressionSet",
             assayData = assayDataNew("environment", exprs=Matrix(as.matrix(raw_df), sparse = T), norm_exprs = Matrix(as.matrix(norm_df), sparse = T)),
             phenoData =  new("AnnotatedDataFrame", data = pmeta),
             featureData = new("AnnotatedDataFrame", data =fmeta))

A few additional work needs to be done here: some columns in pmeta, such as cell state should be treated as factors rather than numeric values.

factor_cols <- c("Mouse_ID", "cluster", "State")
for(c in factor_cols) {
    pData(eset)[[c]] <- factor(pData(eset)[[c]])

saveRDS(eset, "your_data_folder/eset.rds") 

Now the expression data and meta information required by VisCello is in place.

[Alternative] Convert common objects to ExpressionSet

  • Seurat object
fmeta <- data.frame(symbol = rownames(seurat)) 
rownames(fmeta) <- fmeta$symbol
eset <- new("ExpressionSet",
             assayData = assayDataNew("environment", exprs=seurat.hcc@assays$RNA@counts, 
             norm_exprs = seurat.hcc@assays$RNA@data),
             phenoData =  new("AnnotatedDataFrame", data =,
             featureData = new("AnnotatedDataFrame", data = fmeta))
  • Monocle object
fmeta <- fData(cds)
fmeta[[1]] <- fmeta$gene_short_name # Make first column gene name
eset <- new("ExpressionSet",
             assayData = assayDataNew("environment", exprs=Matrix(exprs(cds), sparse = T),  
             norm_exprs = Matrix(log1p(Matrix::t(Matrix::t(FM)/sizeFactors(cds))), sparse = T)), 
             phenoData =  new("AnnotatedDataFrame", data = pData(cds)),
             featureData = new("AnnotatedDataFrame", data = fmeta))
  • SingleCellExperiment/SummarizedExperiment object
fmeta <- rowData(sce)
# if rowData empty, you need to make a new fmeta with rownames of matrix: fmeta <- data.frame(symbol = rownames(sce)); rownames(fmeta) <- fmeta[[1]]
fmeta[[1]] <- fmeta$symbol # Make sure first column is gene name
eset <- new("ExpressionSet",
             assayData = assayDataNew("environment", exprs=Matrix(sce@assays$data$counts, sparse = T), 
             norm_exprs = Matrix(sce@assays$data$norm_counts, sparse = T)), 
             phenoData =  new("AnnotatedDataFrame", data = colData(sce)),
             featureData = new("AnnotatedDataFrame", data = fmeta))

Prepare Cello object

Cello object allows embedding of multiple dimension reduction results for different subsets of cells. This allows "zoom-in" analysis on subset of cells as well as differential expression analysis on locally defined clusters. The basic structure of Cello is as follows:

  • name: Name of the cell subset
  • idx : The index of the cell subset in global expression set.
  • proj : Named list of projections such as PCA, t-SNE and UMAP.
  • pmeta : (Optional) local meta data containing the meta data that's specific to this local cell subset. For example, in global meta data, only one "Cluster" column is allowed. But what if you have different clustering results for different cell subsets? You can store this subset-dependent result inside the local pmeta slot of cello.
  • notes : (Optional) information about the cell subset to display to the user

Create Cello for VisCello, note at least one dimension reduction result must be computed and put in cello@proj:

# Creating a cello for all the cells
cello <- new("Cello", name = "Global dataset", idx = 1:ncol(eset)) # Index is basically the column index, here all cells are included 
# Code for computing dimension reduction, not all of them is necessary, and you can input your own dimension reduction result into the cello@proj list.
# It is also recommended that you first filter your matrix to remove low expression genes and cells, and input a matrix with variably expressed genes
cello <- compute_pca_cello(eset, cello, num_dim = 50) # Compute PCA 
cello <- compute_tsne_cello(eset, cello, use_dim = 30, n_component = 2, perplexity = 30) # Compute t-SNE
cello <- compute_umap_cello(eset, cello, use_dim = 30, n_component = 2) # Compute UMAP, need reticulate and UMAP (python package) to be installed
cello <- compute_umap_cello(eset, cello, use_dim = 30, n_component = 3) # 3D UMAP

If you already computed your dimension reduction result and wants to make a cello for it, use following R code:

cello <- new("Cello", name = "My cell subset", idx = cell_index)  # cell_index is which cells from ExpressionSet are used for the dimension reduction
my_tsne_proj <- read.table("path_to_tsne_projection")
my_umap_proj <- read.table("path_to_umap_projection") # You can put in as many dimension reduction result as you want
cello@proj <- list("My t-SNE [2D]" = my_tsne_proj, "My UMAP [3D]" = my_umap_proj) # Put a 2D or 3D in the name to tell VisCello if you want to visualize this as a 2D plot or as a 3D rotatable plot, if 2D there must be 2 columns for each dimension, if 3D there must be 3 columns.

Create a list to store Cello objects and save to data location.

clist <- list()
clist[["Global dataset"]] <- cello
saveRDS(clist, "inst/app/data/clist.rds") 

You can create multiple Cello hosting visualization information of different subsets of the cells. Say people want to zoom in onto GMP for further analysis:

zoom_type <- "GMP"
cur_idx <-  which(eset$cell_type == zoom_type)
cello <- new("Cello", name = zoom_type, idx = cur_idx) 

# Refilter gene by variation if necessary
cello <- compute_pca_cello(eset[,cur_idx], cello, num_dim = 50) # Compute PCA 
cello <- compute_tsne_cello(eset[,cur_idx], cello, use_dim = 15, n_component = 2, perplexity = 30) # Compute t-SNE
cello <- compute_umap_cello(eset[,cur_idx], cello, use_dim = 15, n_component = 2) # Compute UMAP
cello <- compute_umap_cello(eset[,cur_idx], cello, use_dim = 15, n_component = 3) # 3D UMAP
clist[[zoom_type]] <- cello
saveRDS(clist, "your_data_folder/clist.rds") 

Now all the data required to run cello has been preprocessed.

Prepare configure file and launch

Download example configure file from:

  • study_name: Appear as title for the app.
  • study_description : Appear as footer for the app.
  • organism : support mouse, human and c. elegans.
  • feature_name_column : important! What's the column name of fData(eset) that corresponds to gene symbol, must be specified.
  • feature_id_column : What's the column name of fData(eset) that corresponds to gene id, set same as feature_name_column if you don't have gene id.

After updating this file, put it together with previously saved eset.rds and clist.rds

Now VisCello is ready to go! To launch Viscello, in R:

cello(data_path = "your_data_folder")

Host VisCello on a server

To host VisCello on a server, you need either ShinyServer ( or use the service (

STEP 1: Install VisCello from github

install_github("qinzhu/VisCello") # STEP 1

STEP 2: IMPORTANT Git clone VisCello from github, replace inst/app/data/eset.rds, inst/app/data/clist.rds, inst/app/data/config.yml with your own data.

ALSO, change first line in inst/app/global.R from viscello_DEPLOY = F to viscello_DEPLOY = T.

STEP 3: Set the repositories to bioconductor in R, and then only deploy the inst/app/ folder that contains your own data.

options(repos = BiocManager::repositories()) 
rsconnect::deployApp("inst/app/", account = "cello", appName = "base") # change account to your own account, change app name to your own app name.

Please cite VisCello properly if you use VisCello to host your dataset.

Cite VisCello

Q. Zhu, J. I. Murray, K. Tan, J. Kim, qinzhu/VisCello: VisCello v1.0.0 (2019;

Packer, J. S., Q. Zhu, C. Huynh, P. Sivaramakrishnan, E. Preston, H. Dueck, D. Stefanik, K. Tan, C. Trapnell, J. Kim, R. H. Waterston and J. I. Murray (2019). A lineage-resolved molecular atlas of C. elegans embryogenesis at single-cell resolution. Science: eaax1971.


Paul, Franziska, Ya’ara Arkin, Amir Giladi, Diego Adhemar Jaitin, Ephraim Kenigsberg, Hadas Keren-Shaul, Deborah Winter, et al. 2015. “Transcriptional Heterogeneity and Lineage Commitment in Myeloid Progenitors.” Cell 163 (7). Elsevier: 1663–77.

Cao, Junyue, et al. Comprehensive single-cell transcriptional profiling of a multicellular organism. Science 357.6352 (2017): 661-667.


Viscello for Visualization of Single Cell Data








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