ORF prediction of de novo transcriptome assemblies
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findorf: ORF prediction of de novo transcriptome assemblies

findorf is an ORF prediction and transcriptome contig annotation tool designed to be non-model organism-friendly.

Caveat emptor: findorf was tested for use in Krasileva et al, 2013 and benchmarked using data from this project. In our tests, it has performed well. However, it has not been widely tested in other species and your mileage may vary. As with all bioinformatics program, check that your results are consistent with your own validation procedures. Also, I am quite busy nowadays so (as with all free software) there is no guarantee of support, but I will try my best.

How is findorf different?

There are many approaches to ORF annotation (see ORFPredictor, Dragon TIS, and MetWAMer). Below are some key design differences of findorf:

  • Designed to work on transcriptome assemblies rather than on genome gene models.

  • Unlike most Translation Initiation Site (TIS) prediction software, findorf does not train on nucleotide signal matrices. This approach is common in computationally spliced gene models coming from genomic sequences after gene prediction.

  • findorf uses BLASTX hits against seperated relative databases and PFAM domain information to infer ORF start position.

  • findorf uses relative information from BLASTX to annotate frameshifts, premature stop codons, etc.

  • findorf is designed with non-model plant species in mind.


findorf requires:


Installation is easy: just clone or download this repository and enter in the directory:

python setup.py install

findorf's General Approach

Using Seperate BLASTX Databases

First, findorf relies upon the idea of BLASTXing each contig against a database of relative proteins seperately, rather than a combined protein database. The motivation for this is that databases of computationally predicted proteins (say from EST or cDNA sequences) may include incorrectly predicted proteins. In non-model organisms, closest relative may also be non-model and its protein data less likely to be validated by multiple source, undergo multiple prediction algorithms, or be externally validates with proteomic data. Thus, ORF prediction that looks at just top hits is not robust against this.

findorf tries to prevent this by seperate BLASTXs against all relatives. Key decisions such as annotating a case as having a majority frameshift or internal stop codon are done by looking at what many relatives' data say.

After ORF prediction, the output GTF file contains annotation on the relative that determined the start codon position. This can be used as independent validation that 5' sites are primarily being chosen by closer relatives (since it's likely more distant relatives 5' regions would have diverged more).

Choosing a Start Site

After infering frame and noting any frameshifts or strand inconsistencies, findorf then chooses its start site. There are two methods findorf can use: 5'-most methionine, and extension from 5'-most HSP. We recommend using the latter.

Both techniques start but enumerating every possible ORF including overlapping cases. This is illustrated below:


        S----4------E           S----------5----------E
s------------1------E  S-------------------2----------E   S-3-e

S: ORF start with start codon
s: ORF start with missing start codon
E: ORF end with stop codon
e: ORF end with missing stop codon

Note that the contig above has six candidates, two with open ended cases (indicated by lower case 's' and 'e'). Suppose HSP1 is our 5'-most HSP. Under the 5'-most HSP rule, ORF 4 is chosen because it overlaps the 5' most HSP (HSP1) with the least 5' extension. Essentially, this method chooses the start site based on whatever evidence we have.

If the 5'-most methionine approach were used, we face an ambiguity: should we chose the open ended case (1) or the closed case (6)? If there is a non-open ended ORF (that is, there is a methionine 5' of the HSP), this is chosen. If there were two non-open ORF cases, we would choose the one with the earliest methionine. But in this approach, the handling of missing 5'-ends is less clear.

Between the two approaches there's a tradeoff between the cost of possibly choosing an internal methionine and choosing the outermost methionine and possibly predicting part of the UTR is coding sequence. Sparks and Brendel (2008) show that the 1st ATG approch works very well 94% specificity and sensitivity (assuming complete 5' regions), but one may decide the cost of predicting a more 5' start site is higher.

Robust Against Mis-Assembly and Chimeric Contigs

A key feature of findorf is that it can also output contigs sequences with the predicted ORF hardmasked (with "X"s). This allows one to BLASTX these masked sequences and run findorf a second iteration. If futher ORFs are found in these non-masked regions, it's a candidate chimeric contig (as there shouldn't be homology with protein sequences in the UTRs*). In these cases, we can use ORF prediction in assembled transcriptome sequences to also judge the incidence of misassembled contigs.

*: Note that there are cases when we this could occur, i.e. if a gene is interrupted with a nonsense mutation but still remains functional or an internal TIS start site was chosen accidentally.

Including PFAM Domains

Warning: Different ways of defining frame could lead to PFAM steps prior to findorf leading to incorrect results. Read this entire section.

The ends of proteins can vary considerably; since findorf start site choice is based on the 5'-most HSP with a sequence, there's also the option to use PFAM domains to detect possible domains in novel protein fusions. This is especially important in 5' regions were a lack of N-terminus homology can confound ORF start prediction.

HMMER's hmmscan can be used to annotate PFAM domains using HMM approaches. hmmscan runs on translated sequences, in all six frames. It is absolutely necessary to ensure that the translation is consistent with BLASTX's. Tools such as emboss transeq can output translates sequences differently that we would guess (and different from BLASTX). Be sure that translation and frames indication are consistent. findorf's hmmscan parser assumes frames are indicated in the sequence header, like: k21_contig_129_+1 or k35_contig_534_-3, so follow this convention.

We recommend running hmmscan command as such:

hmmscan -E 0.001 --domE 1 --tblout <tblout> --domtblout <domtblout> -o <outfile> --noali <database> <infile>

The <tblout> file would then be passed to findorf join with --domain-hits. You also must tell findorf to use PFAM results in the prediction process with -u or --use-pfam. PFAM domains will only affect ORF start site choice; they are not used for annotating frameshifts or internal stop codons (due to the fact a PFAM domain 3' of a stop codon could be due to a chimeric contig). Prediction cases that are extended based on PFAM domains will have the key pfam_extended_5prime set to True in the GTF file.

Running findorf: Join

findorf first joins the contig sequence FASTA file with the results of each separate BLASTX against relatives using the join subcommand. This is to ensure that if prediction is run with different parameters this step is not unnecessarily repeated.

findorf join --ref contigs.fasta at:blast-a_thaliana_alt.xml bd:blast-b_distachyon_alt.xml \
  zm:blast-z_mays_alt.xml os:blast-o_sativa_alt.xml

Note that it is highly recommended organism abbreviation names are provided (otherwise they'll be extracted from the basename). These are then used throughout the predict stage as identifiers.

Running findorf: Predict

The predict subcommand predicts ORFs and annotates contigs and ORFs. Annotation refers not to biological or functional annotation (there are many great pieces of software for this), but rather annotation about the state of the contig as what its relative hits have to say about it. The following attributes are gathered for each contig, before making an ORF prediction.

predict takes many options, for varying types of output.

findorf predict --gtf orfs.gtf --protein proteins.fasta --fasta orfs.fasta \
  --dense dense.out -I -v

In this case, findorf would predict ORFs (predict), output translated proteins (--protein), nucleotide ORFs (--fasta), GTF (--gtf), and a dense output (--dense), be verbose about it (-v), and then go interactive (-I) to allow Python-speaking users to look at the data more closely.

Entering findorf predict --help will list all options.

Prediction Methods: Pre-Prediction Attributes

findorf first gathers some information about a contig based on HSPs from the relatives' seperate BLASTX results and PFAM domains. These attributes are described below and are the requisite information for ORF prediction.


If there are no BLASTX hits to a contig, ORF predict does not predict an ORF. One could take these cases and use an ab initio procedure based on coding potential, PFAM domains, etc.

Inconsistent Strand

findorf also checks that HSPs are on the same strand (allowing for different frames due to frameshift). This could be due do a local translocation, mis-assembly (conjoined contigs), or overlap. In does not predict in these degenerate cases and they are labelled in the GTF with the inconsistent_strand key.

Majority Frame

findorf determines the majority frame across all relatives. The majority is calculated by the number of identities per each frame: more identities in a certain frame, more evidence that this is the correct frame. In practice, there is very little disagreementacross relatives about the frame in our test data.

Query and Subject Start Attributes

findorf annotates (in the GTF) the 5'-most HSP query start and query end. In earlier versions, we experimented with using cutoffs of these values to infer whether the 5'-end of a contig was missing. Currently these threshold-based approaches are not being used, but one may wish to use query and subject start positions as diagnostics. One approach is to plot the query and subject start as points (one for every contig) and color these by the type of ORF (missing 5', missing 3', partial, full-length, etc).

         query start
          |   HSP
    |------------------------------------------| contig
  |.......|---------| subject

Prediction Methods: ORF Choice

Finally, with these necessary requisite attributes, findorf can proceed and try to predict the ORF.

5'- and 3'-most Anchor HSPs

The first step is to gather the HSPs (from any relative) that are the 5'-most and 3'-most. These are subject to the e-value based filtering (command line option -evalue, default 1e-5). The 5'-most HSP is what determines ORF start position (more on this below).

Majority Frameshift Prediction

If there's a majority frameshift, findorf does not use the majority frame, but rather the frame of the 5'-most HSP. A contig with a frameshift mutation could still be functional. In this case, the prediction procedure operators as a ribosome would: it reads in the frame of the 5'-most anchor HSP of the closest relative. These cases are annotated in the GTF as: majority_frameshift True.


If --use-pfam is set, findorf will then take all PFAM domains and remove those with a frame that differs from the majority frame. Note: the specified e-value threshold does not apply to PFAM domain hits (since e-values are calculated differently). If you wish to filter PFAM domains by e-value, you must do so via awk or the hmmscan tool.

With these domain hits in the same frame as the majority frame, findorf then checks if any is more 5' than the 5'-most anchor HSP. If so, this is used as the 5'-most range during ORF prediction.

ORF Enumeration and Overlap Finding

As illustrated in the "Choosing a Start Site" section above, findorf enumerates all ORF possibilities, including the open-ended cases and overlapping cases. This list of ORF candidates is then subset by those overlapping the 5'-most HSP (or PFAM hit). Those that overlap are then chosen according to the 5'-most HSP or 5'-most methionine rule (discussed more above). Cases in which there is no start or stop codon are annotated.

Internal Stop Codon Annotation

To be robust against the possibility of chimeric contigs, an internal (or premature) stop codon is annotated as the case in which there are more relatives that have an HSP that:

  1. Overlaps the ORF.

  2. Have an end position greater than the ORF stop codon + 60bp (known as buffer_bp in the code):

                    ORF end
     ------------------|   buffer_bp
     ---------------------------|--------| HSP end

The overlap requirement protects against the case in which a chimeric contig has an HSP (to the other chimeric mRNA) past the stop site.