Course itself

From wiki
Jump to: navigation, search

Part One: Linux

Introduction 1

Genomics studies produce vast amounts of usually in the form of very large text files. ### What is a text file and how it differs from other files * Basically a test file is any file that is not binary. * Binary files are only readable by machines and special software. * In Unix, commands are usually binary, while their targets and arguments are usually text * MS Word might look like a text file, but actually it is binary. * In MS Windows and (less often) MAC OSX all files tend to be binary, and need a special (often not free) program to open them * This means it can be opened with "general" tools, not a certain specific one.

Linux is particularly suited to working with with such files, and is therefore arguably one of the most important tools int he bioinformatician's toolkit. The Linux command-line enables one to view, search and maniupluate large text files that are difficult or impossible to handle with applications like MS Word, or MS Excel, write pipelines to perform certain tasks and run bioinformatics software for which no web interface is available.

Introduction 2

The aim of this course is to provide a basic introduction to unix, covering the most used commands ,as well as briefly touching upon a few slightly more advanced topics like text processing using awk, writing small shell scripts and some biofinromatics tools (seqtk, bioawk, SAMtools and tabix).

Linux is used by the vast majority of bioinformaticians in the world. The term Linux refes to a large number of (very similar) operating systems, many of which are free. In this one day course, we will use StABU's, the Bioinformatics Unit's, cluster which actually runs a non-free edition of Linux called Red Hat Enterprise Linux. We shall be connecting to it remotely, via the PuTTY program hosted on your MS Windows machines. This cluster, made up of 11 powerful computers with large amounts of memory, has many of the standard Bioinformatics tools and software installed.

The real power of Unix/Linux is the command-line. The command-line is an incredibly powerful way of controlling what your computer does, and users typed submit typed commands in sequence to run differnet pieces of software. Users may also create a text file containing many commands and this is called a "shell script".

This course is primarily based on Edinburgh Genomics "Linux for Genomics" course, which in its turn borrows from the Biolinux (another "flavour" of Unix/Linux) introduction tutorial and an Andy Law's (Roslin Institute) presentation. Some material is also drawn from Vince Buffalo's "Bioinformatics Data Skills" published by O'Reilly in 2015.

Using the command-line

The real power of Unix/Linux systems is the command-line (also called the shell or terminal). Many programs and facilities are available through graphical options in Linux, but all programs and facilities can be accessed by the command-line. Sometimes. it is easier to do things through graphical interfaces, but, equally, sometimes it is easier using the command-line. This is especially true when you start to work with large numbers of files or are considering automating processes.

The program we'll use today, PuTTY is not actually a Linux program, but a communications program that networks with remote computers using a system called SSH, "Secure Shell". It also generates a screen where your typing appears and sends it to the remote computer it connects to. This was called a teletype or TTY because it sends typed user input over distances usually to a receiving computer. Essentially it was a typewriter, but with its own electronics to send the typing down a cable, as well repeating (echo'ing) it back to an attached printer or (later) screen.

What is a Teletype

A teletype that is not only capable of repeating your typing back to you, but is also capable of doing something with it, and sending you the result almost instantaneously is called a terminal or console, and one that is not a separate machine but actually implemented in software by the computer itself, is called a terminal emulator. Nevertheless many of these terms are used interchangeably.

The idea that your typing will be somehow "acted upon" or "processed" is an important one. It means that within the message you type, there are instructions. But these instructions also take the form of words. The difference will be that we want the instruction's words to be interpreted. The convention is that the first words, from the left, of a line form the command, while the first words, from the right, are the targets of the command, usually filenames and are technically called arguments.

A New World

The command-line can look forbidding at first. It can be rather like a blank page is to novelist, who refer to "the tyranny of the blank page". Paradoxical enough the characters that appear to the left of the cursor are called the prompt, though it seldom gives a hint as to what you should do next!

This idea is correct in one sense, nearly all commands are possible by simply typing them in as the first word. Some times a special program is required to load a special piece of software, but once done, you can use the command line to launch it. And the majority of these programs also expect the next few words to be the input data files.

The command ls lists files and subdirectories in a directory

By default this command will list the filenames of the files in your current working directory. At the moment this is probably your home directory. In its simplest form, it's one of the few commands that does not need any arguments, and, as such, is an exception.

If you add a space followed by a -l after the ls command, it is called an option and it alters the behaviour of the command - it will now list the files in your current directory, but with details about them such as who owns them, what the size is, and what can be done with it. These details are highly abbreviated so that they fit onto one line and will be explained later.


Type the command ls Type the command ls -l Type the command ls -lh

What do you see that is different?

We've now met the three types of words that command-lines are made up of, can you name them?

The command man provides help for a command

There are many options you can provide with the ls command that modify what kind of information is returned to you. By typing man ls you get access to the manual page for this command. Almost all Linux commands have a manual page, and it is woth referring to them to find out what options are available. Many jobs can be made easier by using the right command options.

Open the help command for ls by typing man ls and look at some of the information provided. Close the man page by typing the letter q.

If you do not know the name of the command to use for a particular job, you can search using man -k. For example, man -k list gives a list of a number of commands that have the word "list" in their description. You can scroll through these, or try making the search more specific. For example: man -k "list directory" will only return four commands. You could then look at the man pages for each command to decide which was the best for the job at hand.


Ctrl+F to advance forward by pages Ctrl+B to advance backward in pages q to exit

Type the command man cp. What does this tell you?

Type the command man mv. What does this tell you?

Type the command man rm. What does this tell you?

What is the difference between cp and mv?

Type the command man touch.

  • Empty of options, what does touch do? Do you think that is useful?

Basic Linux/Unix tips for filenames

Certain characters you are used to should not be used in filenames in Linux/Unix. Other are much more preferred. For example, preferred characters in Unix are letters, numbers, hyphens, underscores and full stops.

Unix/Linux/Unix does not deal well with spaces in filenames! Make sure your filenames do not contain them. Filenames with spaces in them are a common problem when transferring files to Linux/Unix from computers running Windows, or Mac operating systems. If you end up with filenames with spaces in them, you will need to enclose the entire filename in quotation marks so that Linux/Unix understands that the space is part of the name.

Alternatively, you can “escape” the space using a backslash. For example, if I have a file called my document Linux/Unix will see this as two filenames, “my” and “document”. But you could write either of the following to make it understand you mean a single file:

  • "my file"
  • my file

Our general advice is to change the name of such files to remove the space. A common practice is to replace the space with an underscore. We can use the recently discovered touch and mv commands for to try this out:

  • Do you think there is something fundamental about the space character in command-line? What is it?
  • What do the quotation marks around the space character say about it in this respect?

Assume that everything is case specific

Linux/Unix systems consider capital letters different from lower case letters. The filename myFile is not the same as the filename Myfile or myfile. Please note that there are some common naming conventions in place for biological data that you should try to follow.

special files and subdirectories that start with a .

So far you probably think you have a good idea of the file you have in your home directory. But you haven't counted on files that with a .. These are called hidden files, are usually configuration and settings files, often with fixed names that refer to the program they affect. In truth there are only very light hidden, because ls does not show them, however the -a option can deal with that

    • Exercise **


ls -a
ls -al

How lonely are your first files after all?

Changing directories

The command used to change directories is cd. If you think of your directory structure, (i.e. this set of nested file folders you are in), as a tree structure, then the simplest directory change you can do is move into a directory directly above or below the one you are in.

To change to a directory one below you are in, just use the cd command followed by the subdirectory name:

cd subdir_name

To change directory to the one above your are in, use the shorthand for “the directory above” ..

cd ..

If you need to change directory to one far away on the system, you could explicitly state the full path:

cd /usr/local/bin

If you wish to return to your home directory at any time, just type cd by itself.


And finally, you can type

cd –

This returns you to the last directory you were working in before this one.

If you get lost and want to confirm where you are in the directory structure, you can use the pwd command it stands for "print working directory". This will return the full path of the directory you are currently in.


ls -l
cd /shelf/scratch/itugrp
ls -l
cd /usr/local/bin
ls -l
  • Compare the output of pwd and your prompt and note the differences.

Tab completion for commands and filenames

Tab completion is an incredibly useful facility for working on the command line. One thing tab completion does is complete the filename or program name you want, saving huge amounts of typing time.

For example, from your home directory, you could type:

ls -l my

and hit the tab key. If there is only one file with a name starting with the letters “my”, the rest of the name will be completed for you. However, maybe there is more than one file with that name, so add an underscore to see a file is unique to those three characters

ls -l my_

If there is, then the rest of the filename will be completed for you with your having to type more. Type cd /usr/local and use tab-completion for the rest of the command. What happens? Type return to ignore the tab completion suggestions.

cd /usr/local cd

This works for all commands. What tab completion does is assume that you want to give the first part of your command some arguments, and that if you don't start with a / or a ., that it will be a file or a subdirectory in the current directory.

If it does start with a forward slash, then the tab-completion will expect a path of directories and will base its completion on directories outside the current home directory. If we use tab completion on the first word, tab-completion will also work on commands available in the system

    • Exercise

Try typing a first word starting with f using tab completion. See how many letters you have to give for tab completion to hel you with fortune


Command history

Previous commands you have used are stored in your history, which is a special file, one of the so-called "hidden" files, .bash_history, it is used byt eh program history to store (nearly) all the command line typing you do.

You can save a lot of typing by using your command history effectively. If you use the up arrow key when you are at the prompt in your terminal, you can see previous commands you have run. This is particularly useful if you have mistyped something and want to edit the command without writing the whole command out again.

In fact, in cases

By default, history will return a list of the last 15 commands run. You can add a number as a parameter to the command to ask for longer or shorter lists. For example, to return the last 30 commands run, you would type:

history -30

To re-run a command listed by the history command, you can just type the command number, preceded by an exclamation mark. E.g. to run command number 12 returned to you, you can type:


Of course you will need to know exactly what the 12th command you launched was, and it is not a good to guess. So ask the command line to just print it out, and not to execute it with


It is also possible to "speed search" by giving history a clue by typing the first few letters of the command followed by the key combination:


(ie. hold down Ctrl and tap the R key)

The command history will be scanned and the matching commands will be displayed on the console. Type Ctrl-r repeatedly to cycle through the entire list of matching commands.

Making and removing (empty) directories

To make a new directory, use the command mkdir (make directory). For example:

mkdir newdir

would create a new directory called newdir. To remove a directory we use rmdir, however the directory must be empty before it can be remoced with this particular command.

    • Exercise **

Start in your home directory. Which command will take you into your home directory?

Make a new directory called testdir and move into it. Create an empty file called herenow. Then move back into your home directory. Try to use rmdir to delete the directory. Find way of deleting it with rmdir.

mkdir testdir
cd testdir
touch herenow
rmdir testdir

Reading text files

There are many commands available for reading text files on Linux/Unix. These are useful when you want to look at the contents of a file, but do not edit them. Among the most common of these commands are cat, more, and less. The first name comes from concatenate, and while the second was probably a serious name, the third most definitely was a playful reference to the second.

cat can be used for concatenating files and reading files into other programs; it is a very useful facility. However, cat streams the entire contents of a file to your terminal and is thus not that useful for reading long files as the text streams past too quickly to read.

more and less are commands that show the contents of a file one page at a time. less has a few more features more (this also gives a good insight into Unix humour

With both more and less, you can use the space bar to scroll down the page, and typing the letter q causes the program to quit – returning you to your command line prompt.

Once you are reading a document with more or less, typing a forward slash / will start a prompt at the bottom of the page, and you can then type in text that is searched for below the point in the document you were at. Typing in a ? also searches for a text string you enter, but it searches in the document above the point you were at. Hitting the n key during a search looks for the next instance of that text in the file.

With less (but not more), you can use the arrow keys to scroll up and down the page, and the b key to move back up the document if you wish to.


Read the file /path/to/gwas.bed

Text editors

Due to the emphasis the genomics has on symbols represented by letters, having a dependable and powerful text editor to quickly see id lines, detect (at least, easily seen) errors and jump quickly between sections, we have chosen to introduce you to the particularly powerful vim text editor. We shall include a longer section on it the afternoon, but for now we will limit ourselves to its essential commands.

It is also a good place to test regular expressions, a tool which we will also look at in the afternoon. It also help in dealin with an easily overlooked problem in sharing bioinformatics files: that MS Windows, MAC OSX and Unix all treat their line endings differently.

Another advantage is that its special keys, and key combinations, mean the same thing in other programs, particularly more and less which we've just seen. Examples are Ctrl+f, Ctrl+b and especially the forward slash / for all important searching.

vim to start :q to get out :w <filename> to save a file

Copying files

The basic command used to copy files using the command line is cp. At a minimum, you must specify two arguments: the name of the file to be copied, and where you wish to copy the file to.

The main things to know about using the cp command are:

Removing directories

Piping and outputting to files


What permissions mean


Working with zipped data

Some other useful information

Stopping processes

Clearing the terminal

Copying and pasting text

Environment Variables

The FASTQ format

FASTQ on the command line

Using paste to manipulate fastq

awk for data in columns

FASTQ to FASTA conversion

Process Management

Simple shell scripts

If you finish and you are bored

Two: Command-line tools for Genomics