Genomic tracks

Here is a short tutorial showing how to manage track files with the Python library track from the bbcflib package.

What is it useful for?

Bioinformaticians have to deal with large files in multiple formats. This involves tedious conversions, manipulations, and hundreds of very similar scripts that each of us rewrites constantly. Also, shell commands have their limits, and most of the time it is simpler/mandatory to use a real programming language instead (here we choose Python). The purpose of track is to provide an immediate access to the file’s content, neither having to think about formats’ specificities, nor convert or decode binary formats.

What formats are supported?

All kinds of raw text files organized in columns can be read (if column fields are specified), e.g. csv, sam, or tab-delimited files. The following formats are automatically recognized and decoded:

bed, wig, bedGraph, bigWig, SAM, BAM, sqlite, sga, gff.

The format is recognized mostly when reading the corresponding file extensions:

.bed, .wig, .bedGraph, .bedgraph, .bigWig, .sam, .bam, .bw, .sql, .sga, .gff, .gtf.

URLs pointing to such files (ex.: and gzipped files are handled automatically.

Ensure that your files respect exactly their format’s specifications, without any extra lines at the end or in the body of the file, except for specific headers.


  • track: any kind of file that records at least a position in the genome, usually many of them, either intervals (e.g. gene positions) or scores (e.g. density of reads in a give region). By extension, any object containing the same information.
  • stream: an iterator, similar to a cursor pointing to lines of the track file one by one, never reading back. It can be read over only once.
  • field: a name describing the content of a column of a track file, for instance the most usual ‘chr’, ‘start’, ‘end’, ‘score’, ‘name’ or ‘strand’.

How does is work?

The library is made of two main functions: track and convert, and two main classes: Track and FeatureStream.

When one calls the track function on a file name, it creates a Track instance that knows the format of the file and its field names, and records genomic information about the species (if specified). It is the interface that gives access to the file’s content, similarly to a file object: it does not itself contain the data, but one can read and write it.

Reading a Track object returns a FeatureStream instance, which is iterable over the data, line by line. On purpose, it does not load all the data in memory as a list would do.

A FeatureStream is basically an iterator that yields tuples of the type (‘chr1’,12,14,0.5). Once it has been manipulated at will, it can be written to another Track using the latter’s write method.

The convert method can translate a file from a given format to another.

How do I use it?

  1. Create (open) a track:

    >>> from bbcflib.track import track
    >>> t = track("myfile.bed")
    >>> t
    <bbcflib.track.text.BedTrack object at 0x1004a1710>
    >>> t.fields
    ['chr', 'start', 'end', 'name', 'score', 'strand']
    >>> t.format
  2. Read the content of a track:

    >>> s =
    >>> s
    <bbcflib.track.FeatureStream object at 0x101244350>
    ('chrII', 45975, 46367, 'YBL092W', 6.0, 1)
    ('chrII', 59818, 60735, 'YBL087C', 8.0, -1)
    >>> for x in s: print x
    ('chrII', 88521, 89123, 'YBL072C', 1.2, -1)
    ('chrII', 168426, 169379, 'YBL027W', 9.0, 1)
    ('chrII', 300166, 301254, 'YBR031W', 11.0, 1)
    ('chrII', 332829, 333810, 'YBR048W', 4.0, 1)
    >>>      # Already read entirely
    >>> s =  # Reset the stream
    >>>      # Read again from the beginning
    ('chrII', 45975, 46367, 'YBL092W', 6.0, 1)
  3. Write a stream to a new empty track:

    >>> out = track("newfile.wig")
    >>> out.write(s)  # 's' is a FeatureStream
    >>> out.close()
    >>> out
    <bbcflib.track.text.WigTrack object at 0x101769e90>

    Note: the file “newfile.wig” is created only at the time you begin writing to it.

    Note: a Track may not be written entirely until you close it!

  4. Convert a track:

    >>> from bbcflib.track import convert
    >>> convert("myfile.bed", "myfile.wig")
  5. Add genomic information to a Track (from GenRep):

    >>> t = track("myfile.bed", chrmeta='mm9')  # Mouse assembly name
    >>> t.chmeta
    {'chrY': {'length': 15902555, 'ac': '2752_NC_000087.6'},
     'chrX': {'length': 166650296, 'ac': '2751_NC_000086.6'},
     'chr13': {'length': 120284312, 'ac': '2744_NC_000079.5'},
    >>> t.assembly
    <bbcflib.genrep.Assembly object at 0x10179b310>

    See bbcflib.genrep.Assembly() for more on genomic meta info.

  6. Make a selection from a track:

    t = track("myfile.bed")
    # Read only one chromosome:
    s ='chr7')
    # Read only some fields:
    s =['start','score'])
    # Read only features which either are on chr1 and start within 1000 bp
    # from the beginning of the chromosome, or are on chr2 and end between
    # 3907400 and 4302000:
    sel = [{'chr':'chr1','start':(1,1000)},
    s =
  7. Read a custom text file:

    t = track("myfile", format='txt', separator='\t',
  8. Loop on chromosomes:

    t = track("myfile.bed", chrmeta='mm9')
    for chrom in t.chrmeta:
        s =

Advanced features

  • Streams can be created programmatically, without reference to a track file, either using a list, or an iterator:

    from bbcflib.track import FeatureStream
    s = FeatureStream([('chr1',12,13,'a'),('chr1',23,28,'b')],
    def generator():
        for x in [10,20,30]:
            yield ('chr1',x,x+5)
    s = FeatureStream(generator(), fields=['chr','start','end'])
  • Items are converted to a specific type upon reading and writing, depending on the field name. The conversion functions are given in a dictionary called intypes (converting from text to Python object) and outtypes (converting from Python to a text format). For example, the default type for a ‘score’ field is float. If your file contains scores like “NA” which are not convertible with float(), then you can specify:

    >>> t = track("myfile.bedgraph",intypes={'score':str})
    ('chr1', 1, 101, 'NA')

    Similarly you can convert when writing to file:

    >>> t = track("myfile.bedgraph",outtypes={'score': lambda x=0:"%s"%int(x+.5)})
    >>> t.write([('chr1',10,14,23.56)])
    "chr1    10      14      24"
  • To switch between the Ensembl and the UCSC numbering convention (0- or 1-based starts):

    >>> t = track("myfile.bedgraph")
    >>> ensembl_to_ucsc(
    ('chr1', 0, 101, 1.0)
    >>> stream = FeatureStream([('chr1',10,14,23.56)], fields=t.fields)
    >>> t.write(ucsc_to_ensembl(stream), mode='append')
        # writes "chr1    11    14    23.56"
  • To ensure that a track file is sorted (w.r.t. chromosome, start and end), one can use the following function:

    >>> from bbcflib.track import check_ordered
    >>> check_ordered("myfile.bed")
  • To test if all lines of the track file fit the given format:

    >>> from bbcflib.track import check_format
    >>> check_format("myfile.bed")
  • BAM tracks have special methods: count and coverage. The first counts the number of reads spanning each of a given set of regions; the second returns the basepair-wise coverage within a given region. Both return FeatureStream objects:

    >>> t = track("myfile.bam")
    >>> regions = [('chr1',11,20),('chr2',5,22)] # can also be a FeatureStream
    >>> c = t.count(regions)
    >>> for x in c: print x
    ('chr1',11,20, 12.)
    ('chr2',5,22, 89.)
    >>> region = ('chr1',11,20)
    >>> c = t.coverage(region)
    >>> for x in c: print x
    ('chr1',11,12, 6.)
    ('chr1',12,13, 5.)
    ('chr1',13,17, 4.)
    ('chr1',17,18, 1.)
    ('chr1',19,20, 6.)
    # No coverage at position 18; positions 13 to 16 have the same coverage.

gfminer: data manipulations

track basically parses track files but does not transform the original data. To manipulate your data, the bbcflib library provides powerful tools to concatenate, intersect, annotate, etc. It will always take FeatureStream objects as input, so first open the track using track.track, then read it and provide the output stream to one of gfminer‘s functions. Most of them will also return streams, so that you can pass it to another function, and write the final result to a new Track.

For more info, see gfminer‘s tutorial and developer documentation.

Miscellaneous notes