Planning bioinformatics workflows using an expert system

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Bioinformatic analyses are becoming formidably more complex due to the increasing number of steps required to process the data, as well as the proliferation of methods that can be used in each step. To alleviate this difficulty, pipelines are commonly employed. However, pipelines are typically implemented to automate a specific analysis, and thus are difficult to use for exploratory analyses requiring systematic changes to the software or parameters used.


To automate the development of pipelines, we have investigated expert systems. We created the Bioinformatics ExperT SYstem (BETSY) that includes a knowledge base where the capabilities of bioinformatics software is explicitly and formally encoded. BETSY is a backwards-chaining rule-based expert system comprised of a data model that can capture the richness of biological data, and an inference engine that reasons on the knowledge base to produce workflows. Currently, the knowledge base is populated with rules to analyze microarray and next generation sequencing data. We evaluated BETSY and found that it could generate workflows that reproduce and go beyond previously published bioinformatics results. Finally, a meta-investigation of the workflows generated from the knowledge base produced a quantitative measure of the technical burden imposed by each step of bioinformatics analyses, revealing the large number of steps devoted to the pre-processing of data. In sum, an expert system approach can facilitate exploratory bioinformatic analysis by automating the development of workflows, a task that requires significant domain expertise.

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