NIH 2002 Workshop on Model Organism Databases

NIH/NIAID/Wellcome Trust Workshop on Model Organism Databases, April 2002

The above report discusses and summarizes good practices for new and existing model organism/genome databases.

Report from the NIH/NIAID/Wellcome Trust Workshop on Model Organism Databases

National Human Genome Research Institute Bethesda, Md. April 29-30, 2002



From April 29 through April 30, representatives of the major model organism databases (MODs), funding agencies and other interested parties met to discuss current and future needs for model organism databases (See Participants). The workshop attendees were tasked to develop strategies to increase the quality, and decrease the cost and startup time, of new publicly funded MODs.

After an introductory session, attendees joined break out working groups, and later reassembled in a general discussion group to present the reports of working groups and to develop a consensus statement. This document represents the consensus of the workshop.

Executive Summary

MODs are for more than model organisms. Although the term “Model Organism Database” was originally coined to describe databases devoted to any of the model organisms, the term has taken on broader meaning in recent years, and now signifies any curated community database that is dedicated to a single species or related clade of species.

The essential nature of MODs. Model organism databases provide many essential services to the research community, including providing access to genome-scale data sets, adding value to these data sets by manual and automatic re-annotation, developing controlled vocabularies and nomenclatures, and relating this information to the classical hypothesis-driven research published in the literature. The need for MOD services will only increase as biological research moves increasingly toward high-throughput techniques.

The benefits of reuse. The cost, both in time and in funds, of establishing a new MOD is non-trivial. A significant benefit can be realized by reusing resources developed by existing MODs when establishing new ones. These resources include management structures, standard operating procedures, database models and software. Such reuse of existing resources will result in higher quality overall, and will also foster collaboration and data sharing among MODs.

Good practices for MODs. The workshop identified a number of “good practices” for MODs that will ease the establishment of new projects and encourage interoperability and cooperation between existing ones. These good practices are enumerated in detail in the body of this report, but the common thread is to make use of existing expertise, software and protocols whenever possible.

High priority needs. The attendees developed a prioritized set of needs for current and new MODs. Chief among these is the need for a repository of well-documented data models.

Intellectual property issues. Workshop attendees agreed that it is highly desirable for software developed for use by MODs be available free to academics and available under terms that guarantee its availability in perpetuity. However, this is a complex issue that is discussed in more detail in the body of the report.

Moving towards generic components. The workshop attendees propose a set of follow-on workshops directed towards establishing cohesion among, and technical interoperability between, current and anticipated MODs. The goal of these workshops would be to develop a common set of data format standards, protocols, standard operating procedures and data models that would form the basis of a set of generic components for MOD building.

The need for continued funding. Recognizing the essential nature of MODs for the curation and distribution of genomic information, workshop attendees were united in recommending that funding agencies bear in mind the need to maintain existing MODs and to establish new MODs in order to keep pace with the expansion of genomic research.

Detailed Report

Model organism system databases (MODs) are a vital tool for scientific research. They share a common set of tasks: to collect and curate data from the scientific literature such as mutations, alleles, genetic and physical maps, and phenotypes; to integrate this information with the results of large-scale experiments such as microarray studies, SNP screens and protein-interaction studies; to provide reagent resources such as stocks, genetic constructs and clones; and lastly to provide a common nomenclature for gene symbols, anatomic terms and other elements of the scientific vocabulary. By integrating, and in some cases reanalyzing, these data, MODs are able to greatly enhance their value. This information is made available to the research community via a Web site that also serves as a nexus for discussions, announcements of interest to the community and data submissions.

It is important to note that with respect to genomic data, the key role of the model organism databases is to connect genomic features to the experimental data from both high-throughput and classical biology studies of the organism, a role that is distinct from that of automated genome annotation projects. Also, MODs have an interpretative and curatorial role that distinguishes them from GenBank and other strictly archival databases.

Five well-established model organism databases are FlyBase, SGD/MIPS/YPD, MGD, WormBase, and TAIR which are associated respectively with D. melanogaster, S. cerevisiae, M. musculus, C. elegans and A. thaliana. In recent years, EnsEMBL has become something of a MOD for vertebrates, although currently its curatorial role is limited to genomic annotation on human chromosomes 22 and 20.

As the cost of genome sequencing has come down, an increasing number organisms are either now in the process of sequencing, such as Anopheles gambia, Oryza sativa, Plasmodium falciparum, Rattus rattus, or are likely to be sequenced in the near future, such as Dictyostelium discoidium, Leishmania donovani, Zea maize, sea urchin, honeybee and cow. There is a clear and present need for new MODs to manage these data sets.

However, setting up a MOD from the ground up is expensive and time-consuming, and the solutions arrived at are often strikingly different from other MODs in terms of data models, user interfaces and data exchange formats. As a result, the research community has to struggle to adjust to new user interfaces, and the MODs themselves must devote precious resources to exchanging and relating to each other’s information.

Benefits of Reuse

The best way to decrease the time and financial resources needed to launch a new MOD is to reuse resources already invested in existing MODs. The chief of these resources are management structures, standard operating procedures, outreach and education strategies and other nuggets of accumulated information learned the hard way during the administration of the current set of MODs. Other valuable resources are data models for representing biological information and their associated database schemas, and software, including middleware systems, curators’ tools, data analysis pipelines and visualization software.

Reusing these resources will immediately ease the learning curve for new MODs and help get new projects up and running faster. However, reuse is also extremely beneficial for established MODs. Drawing from the same pool of database schemas, middleware and software is the first step towards making MODs interoperable. It gives established MODs the flexibility to add new features without extensive development time, and it makes it possible and convenient for MODs to interchange data. This consideration will become increasingly important as comparative genomics comes into ascendancy over the next few years.

In the best of worlds, setting up a new MOD would be a matter of picking and choosing from among a construction set of generic components and simply connecting them up. The components would include operational modules, such as rules for extracting protein/protein interactions from a published paper, database schemas, such as a schema for representing QTL mapping results and software, such as a microarray hierarchical clustering module.

The workshop attendees were careful to note that reuse may not lead directly to reduced costs for the funding agencies. Rather, reuse will increase the quality of the MODs to the research community without a concomitant increase in the price tag.

Good Practices and Other Guidelines for New MODs

The workshop attendees identified a set of “good practices” for new and existing MODs. We feel that following these practices will make it easier to initiate, build and maintain MODs while increasing their overall usefulness. Although the list is not intended to be normative, we feel that it represents commonly accepted practices and will need to be explicitly justified if departed from.

For all MODs:

1. Rely on institution practices rather than people

MODs should be designed to transcend the people who run them. This means that the MOD should strive to create an institutional memory that is stable against changes in personnel or administration. In practice, this means creating written data release policies, written standard operating procedures and written quality assurance procedures. The documentation should be clear, detailed and up to date and treated with the same respect as the biological data that is being curated.

For the software used and developed by the MOD, good software engineering practices should be followed. At the minimum, this calls for a source code control system, a suite of regression tests and regular code review.

Naturally, all software, data and documentation produced by a MOD should be archived at a secure offsite location in case of physical disaster.

2. Reuse software, don’t reinvent it

MODs should strive to reuse software whenever possible. Although it may seem simpler to re-implement a piece of existing software that doesn’t quite fit rather than modifying it, in practice this leads to greater costs down the road in the form of interoperability losses and a limited pool of developers who understand the software.

3. Seek “co-curation” opportunities whenever possible

MODs should look for opportunities to establish co-curation relationships with archival databases as well as those that perform a specialist function such as genome annotation. During the meeting, several MODs cited mutually beneficial arrangements with SwissProt, NCBI and EnsEMBL to combine the curational strengths of the MOD with the computational strengths of the specialist database.

4. Design software with a view to interoperability

Software interoperability is good because it fosters reuse, increases the pool of developers who are comfortable with the system and allows robust modular designs. In general we see two types of interoperability. Semantic interoperability is interoperability at the level of the data model, and comprises shared ontologies and shared high level data models. Compute interoperability allows software to communicate via shared file formats, transport protocols and database schemas. Both types of interoperability are needed to create truly generic software components, but either in isolation is better than none.

To achieve semantic interoperability, we strongly recommend that MODs make use of common biological ontologies such as those posted on the Global Open Biological Ontologies (“gobo”) site []. If an appropriate ontology is not already available, MODs are urged to form consortia to develop the needed ontology following an open model similar to that used by the Gene Ontology Consortium.

To achieve compute interoperability, we urge MODs to use standard file and exchange formats for representing data sets, or to meet jointly to design the necessary formats. It is also important for MODs to make an explicit statement of the level of compute interoperability that they are striving to achieve (see below).

5. Perform a thorough needs analysis. Repeat regularly

Every MOD should perform a needs analysis early in its life cycle. This may involve meeting with representatives of the research community, circulating questionnaires, holding focus groups, and using other techniques to gain an understanding of what the research community needs from the MOD and what its priorities are. Since priorities change, this needs analysis should be repeated at regular intervals.

6. Involve the research community

MODs need to be integrated into their research community. Ways to achieve this includes presentations at research meetings, sponsorship of workshops, internship programs in which members of the research community spend some time with the MOD and vice versa and collaborations on particular research projects. Programs that involve members of the research community in a curatorial role are strongly encouraged.

7. Interact with other MODs

MODs share a common set of challenges and can benefit immensely from exchanging viewpoints and lessons learned. The workshop strongly endorsed activities that would build a sense of community among the MODs themselves. More informally, the MODs should interact with each other on a regular basis.

8. Use shared resources such as compute grids when appropriate

By the same token that shared software strengthens MODs, sharing compute resources will lighten the load on new and existing MODs. When appropriate, MODs should seek opportunities to pool hardware resources using grid technologies. These technologies may also permit the different research communities to ask complex queries over the data contained within a number of MODs.

A Framework for Assessing Computational Interoperability

During its discussion of strategies for enhancing computational interoperability among the MODs, workshop attendees developed a conceptual framework in which to discuss computational interoperability and the degree to which a MOD had succeeded in meeting its objectives of providing this service. Under this framework, computational interoperability is represented as seven levels of compliance.

Level -1: Web linking, data dumps to FTP site

This level, which is given a negative number to indicate a minimum level of interoperability, is the status quo. There is no true interoperability among MODs; information is transferred by manual conversion of ad hoc data files dumped to the MODs FTP site or by “screen scraping” the MODs Web site. The structure of the Web pages or the format of the FTP dumps can change without warning.

Level 0: Published API

Under level 0, the MOD has a published application programmer interface that allows third parties to access the MODs’ information. There is no restriction as to what the API can be, but typically it is a software package that allows third parties to connect to the MODs’ database or Web site and transfer information in a described format. The API may change without warning, and there is no requirement that the same API may be shared among more than one MOD.

Level 1: Published API with a test suite

Level 1 is the same as level 0, with the added requirement that the MOD publish a test suite to ensure that it is compliant with its own API.

Level 2: Published “effectively stable” API with a test suite

Level 2 adds the requirement that the API be stable. That is, new features may be added to the API over time, but the changes will not break backward compatibility with scripts written to run off earlier versions of the API.

Level 3: Shared API

At level 3, the API is based on a shared specification that is used by more than one MOD. That is, programs written against the API will work without changes across all MODs that have adapted that API. The API must be effectively stable and have a test suite, as per earlier levels, but there is no restriction on the type of API, data formats or transport protocols.

Level 4: Shared API based on a standard API “flavor.”

Level 4 restricts the API to one of a number of standard “flavors” that have been approved by a MOD interoperability working group. A flavor typically consists of a data format and transport protocol such as SOAP/XML.

Level 5: Adopt an approved preexisting API

In level 5, the MOD adopts an API that has been approved for use by a MOD interoperability working group.

The intent of this conceptual framework is to encourage MODs, when drafting grant proposals and data release policies, to explicitly state what level of interoperability they are striving to achieve, to justify this choice and to be realistic when allocating resources to achieve the chosen goal.

Levels 4 and 5 imply the formation of an expert working group that will make recommendations as to acceptable shared APIs. The workshop series proposed in the next section would provide a mechanism for bringing such a group together.

Moving Towards Generic Components

The workshop attendees enthusiastically endorsed the concept of generic components for MODs. These components, which consist of a collection of standard operating procedures, ontologies, database schemas and software components, will make it easier to start new MODs and will improve the quality, stability and future expansion of existing ones. As stated earlier, generic components may not necessarily reduce MOD budgets, but will significantly enhance efficiency.

The development of these components will require an unprecedented degree of coordination and cooperation among the MODs. To achieve this, the attendees propose that we establish an annual series of MOD-wide meetings, to be attended by representatives of established and nascent MODs. At these meetings, MODs will present their work, discuss challenges and interchange ideas, all of which will help foster a sense of community that is only recently appearing among the MODs. These main meetings will include a set of workshops and satellites at which special interest groups, such as MOD curators, can meet.

At more frequent intervals, we propose a series of small, directed workshops to address the development of generic modules. The subject of the first such workshop would be a top-level discussion to divide the problem into a set of biological domains, such as phenotypes or literature curation. The second and subsequent workshops would each focus on one of these domains, for example literature curation.

The workshops would be attended by MOD programmers and curators, and would deal with the following issues with respect to the focus domain:

Between workshops, development work will be coordinated through the GMOD Web site ( This is a SourceForge-sponsored development site that is already used by WormBase, FlyBase and TAIR to coordinate common software development work. Because of the large amount of detail work that is required to bring off this type of coordinated activity, we propose that a full-time coordinator be hired or appointed specifically for the purpose of managing communication between MOD development efforts, testing interoperability among components, overseeing the GMOD Web site, organizing the workshops, and supervising orderly releases of components and their documentation.

Finally, the development work on generic components would be open to the wider community - anyone would be free to join under the accepted community practices of the open source model.

Need for Continued Funding

Attendees felt that the role of the MODs in organizing genomic data, adding value to it, and effecting community education and outreach, was essential in order to fully realize society’s investment in genome research. Because of the length of time it takes to establish the human infrastructure of an effective MOD and the fragility of this structure should this infrastructure be disrupted by a temporary loss of funding, attendees felt that it was essential that MODs have sources of stable, long-term funding.

Although the goal of self-sufficiency is appealing, attendees felt that it would be undesirable for MODs to charge access fees to community researchers, and that even if such a path were instituted (as occurred when SwissProt began licensing content to non-academic users), that it was unrealistic to expect that such fees would enable MODs to become self-sufficient. MODs will remain reliant on grant-based funding for some time into the future.

Workshop attendees urge that governmental and charitable organizations take into account the need to maintain existing MODs and to underwrite the creation of new ones as they draft their strategic plans for future genome research.

High Priority Needs

During the workshop, a breakout group was assigned the task of prioritizing the current needs of existing and nascent MODs. The following is the list of components identified by this group as urgently needed. The list is prioritized from highest need to lowest:

Intellectual Property Issues

On the issue of MOD intellectual property issues, while there was broad acceptance of the principle that scientific data should be freely available, there was a difference of opinion on how the software developed by MODs should be handled.

A number of attendees advocated the position that software developed by MODs should be required to be made available under an Open Source license using one of the licenses approved by the Open Source Initiative []. The main rationale for this position was concern that proprietary software could be commercialized in such a way as to make it unavailable for use by MODs, as occurred recently in the case of the Neomorphics Genome Software Development Kit, or might become orphaned if the developer were to go out of business, as occurred in the case of Doubletwist and the Agave genome data transfer format API. The advocates of this position also argued that Open Source software lends itself to community development and was more likely to be easily reused.

Other attendees expressed concern that strict Open Source licensing would place harmful restraints on the ability of researchers to commercialize their efforts or to establish public/private partnerships. They also noted that commercialization can in fact be a method for ensuring continued availability of software systems when government funding is discontinued, as, for example, occurred with SwissProt and GDB. They also argued that an insistence on Open Source licensing could inhibit some private research foundations from participating in MOD development.

Workshop attendees agreed on the following consensus position: that software developed under MOD funding should be free to academics and made available under licenses that would guarantee its availability in perpetuity. They further agreed that the source code for this software be available to academics, but not necessarily distributed under an Open Source license.

The appendices to this report include brief minority opinions by Peter Karp and Rolf Apweiler that express their positions with respect to intellectual property issues.

Appendix A: Minority opinion on IP from Rolf Apweiler

On the issue of MOD intellectual property issues, I advocate strongly that both the scientific data and the software developed by MODs should be freely available to all potential users. The MODs are financed by tax-payer money. Not only academics, but also industry has contributed to taxes. Thus, I see here no reason to treat commercial users differently from academic users.

Appendix B: Minority opinion on IP from Peter Karp

Dr. Karp refers readers to the recent (21 May 2002) statement on Bioinformatics software [], published by the International Society for Computational Biology (ISB). An excerpt of the statement, published in full on the ISB Web site, is excerpted here:

1. The term “open source” has taken on many different meanings. This term creates confusion in discussions of software availability; therefore the term should be carefully qualified to indicate which variation of the open-source model is intended.

2. Government agencies that fund bioinformatics research should NOT REQUIRE that software produced with government research funds must be distributed under open-source license (particularly given the ambiguity in the meaning of that term). Because of the complexity inherent in software, no single distribution model is appropriate for all research projects. Government agencies should require clear statements of software availability in grant proposals.

3. As reviewers of bioinformatics grant applications, ISCB scientists have noted that these applications often contain confusing or unclear statements regarding the availability of software that will be developed under government grant funds. This statement contains several definitions of software availability that ISCB recommends for use in bioinformatics grant applications. ISCB recommends one of those definitions as a minimal requirement of software availability that funding agencies should require.

Last Reviewed: April 2006