Same species annotation lift over pipeline.
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Signed-off-by: Anurag Priyam <>
Latest commit 352811c Jul 14, 2018

flo - basic gff annotations lift over using chain files

Lift over is a way of mapping annotations from one genome assembly to another. The idea "lift over" is same as what tools like UCSC LiftOver, NCBI's LiftUp web service do. However, NCBI and UCSC's webs services are available only for a limited number of species.

To perform lift over locally, one can use UCSC chain files (Kent et al 2003) with programs such as UCSC's liftOver or CrossMap. A chain file captures large, homologous segments between two genomes as chains of gapless blocks of alignment. One way of generating chain files is using this bash script and UCSC tools.

flo is an implementation of the above script in Ruby programming language. Further, both liftOver and CrossMap process GFF files line by line instead of transcripts as a whole. This results in some non-biologically meaningful output. flo provides a basic filtering of UCSC liftOver's GFF output.

Using flo | Results & discussion | Tweaking flo

Using flo

To use flo you must have Ruby 2.0 or higher and the BioRuby gem. Ruby 2.0 can be installed through package managers on Linux and is available by default on Mac. To install BioRuby gem:

sudo gem install bio

flo additionally requires a few programs from UCSC tools, GNU Parallel and genometools. These can be installed in any directory by running 'scripts/' script after you have downloaded flo:

wget -c -O flo.tar.gz
tar xvf flo.tar.gz
mv flo-master flo

It's best to run flo in a new directory - we will call it project dir:

mkdir flo_species_name
cd flo_species_name

Copy over example configuration file from where you installed flo to project dir:

cp /path/to/flo/opts_example.yaml flo_opts.yaml

Install flo's dependencies in ext/ directory in the project dir:


Now edit opts.yaml to indicate:

  1. Location of source and target assembly in FASTA format (required).
  2. Location of GFF3 file(s) containing annotations on the source assembly. If this is omitted, flo will stop after generating the chain file.
  3. BLAT parameters (optional). By default the target assembly is assumed to be of the same species. If the target assembly is a different (but closely related) species, you may want to lower minIdentity.
  4. Number of CPU cores to use (required - not auto detected). This
    cannot be greater than the number of scaffolds in the target assembly.

Here, it's important to note that flo can only work with transcripts and their child exons and CDS. Transcripts can be annotated as: mRNA, transcript, or gene. However, if you have a 'gene' annotation for each transcript, you will need to remove that:

/path/to/flo/gff_remove_feats.rb gene xx_genes.gff \
> xx_transcripts.gff

Alternatively, if you have more than one transcript annotated for each gene, you can select the longest transcript for each gene to work with:

/path/to/flo/gff_longest_transcripts.rb xx_genes.gff \
> xx_longest_transcripts.gff

Finally, run flo as:

rake -f /path/to/flo/Rakefile

A common problem encountered is that 1st column of GFF file doesn't match chromosome, or scaffold, or contig id in the source assembly. In this case liftOver will generate an empty output file. flo stops at this point. You can fix the GFF file and resume flo by running the above command.

flo writes all output to a directory called run/ in the current directory. The chain file generated by flo can be found at run/liftover.chn. If flo completed successfully, a directory is created for each given GFF3 file in 'run/' that contains:

  1. lifted.gff3 and unlifted.gff3 - liftOver's output
  2. lifted_cleaned.gff - lifted.gff3 cleaned by flo -> final output
  3. unmapped.txt - id of all transcripts that couldn't be lifted. Transcripts present in this list and also found in output gff should be considered partial.

Results & discussion

Both strengths and weaknesses of flo largely reflect that of the underlying tools - the chain file and UCSC liftOver. In general, gaps and errors in assemblies may split a long chain. Gene models that are split across different chains as well as those that are duplicated in the target assembly are not lifted.

Tweak flo

If you would like to optimise how chain files are created:

  • UCSC wiki and website is an amazing resource to learn about BLAT and chain files. Don't forget to read Kent 2003 paper cited above first.
  • Read the Rakefile from top to bottom. Ruby is similar, yet simpler compared to Perl and bash.

You can test things by lifting annotations between the same assembly.

Copyright 2017 Anurag Priyam, Queen Mary University of London