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Compara API Tutorial


This tutorial is an introduction to the EnsEMBL Compara API. Knowledge of the EnsEMBL Core API and of the concepts and conventions in the EnsEMBL Core API tutorial is assumed. Documentation about the Compara database schema is available in ensembl-compara/docs/ from the EnsEMBL GitHub repository, and while is not necessary for this tutorial, an understanding of the database tables may help as many of the adaptor modules are table-specific.

The latest API course at the moment is still related to the version 73 of the API. However, most of the examples should work. The materials can be found on our GitHub repository. Extra information is also available on the instructors websites: gene-based resources and sequence-based resources.

You can also visit our filmed API course on the EBI's Training online Platform. The API was in version 71 at that time.

Installing the API

API installation and updating is the same as per the core API.

Connecting to an EnsEMBL Compara database

Connection parameters

Starting from release 48 EnsEMBL has been running two public MySQL servers on The server accessible on port=4306 hosts all databases prior to release 48, and the server on port=3306 and port=5306 hosts all newer databases starting from release 48.

There are two API ways to connect to the EnsEMBL Compara database:

  • In most cases you will prefer the implicit way - using Bio::EnsEMBL::Registry module, which can read either a global or a specific configuration file or auto-configure itself.
  • However there are cases where you might want more flexibility provided by the explicit creation of a Bio::EnsEMBL::Compara::DBSQL::DBAdaptor.

Implicitly, using the Bio::EnsEMBL::Registry auto-configuration feature (recommended)

For using the auto-configuration feature, you will first need to supply the connection parameters to the Registry loader. For instance, if you want to connect to the the public EnsEMBL databases you can use the following command in your scripts:

use Bio::EnsEMBL::Registry;
    -host => '',
    -user => 'anonymous',
    -port => 5306);

This will initialize the Registry, from which you will be able to create object-specific adaptors later. Alternatively, you can use a shorter version based on a URL:

use Bio::EnsEMBL::Registry;

Implicitly, using the Bio::EnsEMBL::Registry configuration file

You will need to have a registry configuration file set up. By default, it takes the file defined by the ENSEMBL_REGISTRY environment variable or the file named .ensembl_init in your home directory if the former is not found. Additionally, you can use a specific file (see perldoc Bio::EnsEMBL::Registry or later in this document for some examples on how to use a different file). Please, refer to the EnsEMBL registry documentation for details about this option.

Explicitly, using the Bio::EnsEMBL::Compara::DBSQL::DBAdaptor

EnsEMBL Compara data, like core data, is stored in a MySQL relational database. If you want to access a Compara database, you will need to connect to it. This is done in exactly the same way as to connect to an EnsEMBL core database, but using a Compara-specific DBAdaptor. One parameter you have to supply in addition to the ones needed by the Registry is the -dbname, which by convention contains the release number:

use Bio::EnsEMBL::Compara::DBSQL::DBAdaptor;

my $host   = '';
my $user   = 'anonymous';
my $port   = 5306;
my $dbname = 'ensembl_compara_51';

my $comparadb= new Bio::EnsEMBL::Compara::DBSQL::DBAdaptor(
    -host   => $host,
    -port   => $port,
    -user   => $user,
    -dbname => $dbname,
    -species=> 'Multi',

'Multi' is the default name used for automatically-loaded Compara databases and is used throughout this tutorial. If you use another value here, use it in all the get_adaptor function calls (see below).

Building your own DBAdaptor is useful if you need to access several databases from the same script, as you can give a different species parameter to each database.

EnsEMBL Compara object-specific adaptors

EnsEMBL Compara adaptors are used to fetch data from the database. Data are returned as EnsEMBL objects. For instance, the GenomeDBAdaptor returns Bio::EnsEMBL::Compara::GenomeDB objects.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of EnsEMBL Compara adaptors that are most often used:

  • GenomeDBAdaptor to fetch Bio::EnsEMBL::Compara::GenomeDB objects
  • DnaFragAdaptor to fetch Bio::EnsEMBL::Compara::DnaFrag objects
  • GenomicAlignBlockAdaptor to fetch Bio::EnsEMBL::Compara::GenomicAlignBlock objects
  • DnaAlignFeatureAdaptor to fetch Bio::EnsEMBL::DnaDnaAlignFeature objects (note that this adaptor returns an EnsEMBL Core object)
  • SyntenyRegionAdaptor to fetch Bio::EnsEMBL::Compara::SyntenyRegion objects
  • GeneMemberAdaptor to fetch Bio::EnsEMBL::Compara::GeneMember objects
  • GeneTreeAdaptor to fetch Bio::EnsEMBL::Compara::GeneTree objects
  • HomologyAdaptor to fetch Bio::EnsEMBL::Compara::Homology objects
  • FamilyAdaptor to fetch Bio::EnsEMBL::Compara::Family objects

Only some of these adaptors will be used for illustration as part of this tutorial through commented perl scripts code.

You can get the adaptors from the Registry with the get_adaptor command. You need to specify three arguments: the species name, the type of database and the type of object. Therefore, in order to get the GenomeDBAdaptor for the Compara database, you will need the following command:

my $genome_db_adaptor = Bio::EnsEMBL::Registry->get_adaptor(
    'Multi', 'compara', 'GenomeDB');

NB: As the EnsEMBL Compara DB is a multi-species database, the standard species name is 'Multi'. The type of the database is 'compara'. For custom DBAdaptors, replace 'Multi' with the value of the -species parameter you have defined.

Code Conventions

Refer to the EnsEMBL core tutorial for a good description of the coding conventions normally used in EnsEMBL.

We can divide the fetching methods of the ObjectAdaptors into two categories: the fetch_by and fetch_all_by. The former return one single object while the latter return a reference to an array of objects.

my $this_genome_db = $genome_db_adaptor->fetch_by_name_assembly("Homo sapiens"); # If the assembly name is missing, will select the current one
my $all_genome_dbs = $genome_db_adaptor->fetch_all();
foreach my $this_genome_db (@{$all_genome_dbs}) {
  print $this_genome_db->name, "\n";

Whole Genome Alignments

The Compara database contains a number of different types of whole genome alignments. A listing about what are these different types can be found in the ensembl-compara/docs/schema_doc.html document in method_link section.

GenomicAlignBlock objects

GenomicAlignBlocks are the preferred way to store and fetch genomic alignments. A GenomicAlignBlock contains several GenomicAlign objects. Every GenomicAlign object corresponds to a piece of genomic sequence aligned with the other GenomicAlign in the same GenomicAlignBlock. A GenomicAlign object is always in relation with other GenomicAlign objects and this relation is defined through the GenomicAlignBlock object. Therefore the usual way to fetch genomic alignments is by fetching GenomicAlignBlock objects. We have to start by getting the corresponding adaptor:

# Getting the GenomicAlignBlock adaptor:
my $genomic_align_block_adaptor = Bio::EnsEMBL::Registry->get_adaptor(
    'Multi', 'compara', 'GenomicAlignBlock');

In order to fetch the right alignments we need to specify a couple of data: the type of alignment and the piece of genomic sequence in which we are looking for alignments. The type of alignment is a more tricky now: you need to specify both the alignment method and the set of genomes. In order to simply this task, you could use the new Bio::EnsEMBL::Compara::MethodLinkSpeciesSet object. The best way to use them is by fetching them from the database:

# Getting the GenomeDB adaptor:
my $genome_db_adaptor = Bio::EnsEMBL::Registry->get_adaptor(
    'Multi', 'compara', 'GenomeDB');

# Fetching GenomeDB objects for human and mouse:
my $human_genome_db = $genome_db_adaptor->fetch_by_name_assembly('homo_sapiens');
my $mouse_genome_db = $genome_db_adaptor->fetch_by_name_assembly('mus_musculus');

# Getting the MethodLinkSpeciesSet adaptor:
my $method_link_species_set_adaptor = Bio::EnsEMBL::Registry->get_adaptor(
    'Multi', 'compara', 'MethodLinkSpeciesSet');

# Fetching the MethodLinkSpeciesSet object corresponding to LASTZ_NET alignments between human and mouse genomic sequences:
my $human_mouse_lastz_net_mlss =
        [$human_genome_db, $mouse_genome_db]

There are two ways to fetch GenomicAlignBlocks. One uses Bio::EnsEMBL::Slice objects while the second one is based on Bio::EnsEMBL::Compara::DnaFrag objects for specifying the piece of genomic sequence in which we are looking for alignments.

my $query_species = 'human';
my $seq_region = '14';
my $seq_region_start = 75000000;
my $seq_region_end   = 75010000;

# Getting the Slice adaptor:
my $slice_adaptor = Bio::EnsEMBL::Registry->get_adaptor(
    $query_species, 'core', 'Slice');

# Fetching a Slice object:
my $query_slice = $slice_adaptor->fetch_by_region(

# Fetching all the GenomicAlignBlock corresponding to this Slice from the pairwise alignments (LASTZ_NET)
# between human and mouse:
my $genomic_align_blocks =

# We will then (usually) need to restrict the blocks to the required positions in the reference sequence 
# ($seq_region_start and $seq_region_end)

foreach my $genomic_align_block( @{ $genomic_align_blocks }) {
    my $restricted_gab = $genomic_align_block->restrict_between_reference_positions($seq_region_start, $seq_region_end);

Here is an example script with all of this:

use strict;
use Bio::EnsEMBL::Registry;
use Bio::EnsEMBL::Utils::Exception qw(throw);
use Bio::AlignIO;
use Getopt::Long;

my $usage = qq{
  Getting help:

  For the query slice:
    [--species species]
        Query species. Default is "human"
    [--coord_system coordinates_name]
        Query coordinate system. Default is "chromosome"
    --seq_region region_name
        Query region name, i.e. the chromosome name
    --seq_region_start start
    --seq_region_end end

  For the alignments:
    [--alignment_type method_link_name]
        The type of alignment. Default is "LASTZ_NET"
    [--set_of_species species1:species2:species3:...]
        The list of species used to get those alignments. Default is
        "human:mouse". The names should correspond to the name of the
        core database in the registry_configuration_file or any of its

    [--output_format clustalw|fasta|...]
        The type of output you want. "clustalw" is the default.
    [--output_file filename]
        The name of the output file. By default the output is the
        standard output

my $species = "human";
my $coord_system = "chromosome";
my $seq_region = "14";
my $seq_region_start = 75000000;
my $seq_region_end = 75010000;
my $alignment_type = "LASTZ_NET";
my $set_of_species = "human:mouse";
my $output_file = undef;
my $output_format = "clustalw";
my $help;

    "help" => \$help,
    "species=s" => \$species,
    "coord_system=s" => \$coord_system,
    "seq_region=s" => \$seq_region,
    "seq_region_start=i" => \$seq_region_start,
    "seq_region_end=i" => \$seq_region_end,
    "alignment_type=s" => \$alignment_type,
    "set_of_species=s" => \$set_of_species,
    "output_format=s" => \$output_format,
    "output_file=s" => \$output_file);

# Print Help and exit
if ($help) {
    print $usage;

if ($output_file) {
    open(STDOUT, ">$output_file") or die("Cannot open $output_file");

    -host => '', -user => 'anonymous');

# Getting all the Bio::EnsEMBL::Compara::GenomeDB objects
my $genome_dbs;
my $genome_db_adaptor = Bio::EnsEMBL::Registry->get_adaptor(
    'Multi', 'compara', 'GenomeDB');

throw("Cannot connect to Compara") if (!$genome_db_adaptor);

foreach my $this_species (split(":", $set_of_species)) {
    my $this_meta_container_adaptor = Bio::EnsEMBL::Registry->get_adaptor(
        $this_species, 'core', 'MetaContainer');

    throw("Registry configuration file has no data for connecting to <$this_species>")
        if (!$this_meta_container_adaptor);

    my $this_production_name = $this_meta_container_adaptor->get_production_name;

    # Fetch Bio::EnsEMBL::Compara::GenomeDB object
    my $genome_db = $genome_db_adaptor->fetch_by_name_assembly($this_production_name);

    # Add Bio::EnsEMBL::Compara::GenomeDB object to the list
    push(@$genome_dbs, $genome_db);

# Getting Bio::EnsEMBL::Compara::MethodLinkSpeciesSet object
my $method_link_species_set_adaptor = Bio::EnsEMBL::Registry->get_adaptor(
    'Multi', 'compara', 'MethodLinkSpeciesSet');

my $method_link_species_set =

throw("The database do not contain any $alignment_type data for $set_of_species!")
    if (!$method_link_species_set);

# Fetching the query Slice:
my $slice_adaptor = Bio::EnsEMBL::Registry->get_adaptor($species, 'core', 'Slice');

throw("Registry configuration file has no data for connecting to <$species>")
    if (!$slice_adaptor);

my $query_slice = $slice_adaptor->fetch_by_region('toplevel', $seq_region, $seq_region_start, $seq_region_end);

throw("No Slice can be created with coordinates $seq_region:$seq_region_start-".
    "$seq_region_end") if (!$query_slice);

# Fetching all the GenomicAlignBlock corresponding to this Slice:
my $genomic_align_block_adaptor = Bio::EnsEMBL::Registry->get_adaptor(
    'Multi', 'compara', 'GenomicAlignBlock');

my $genomic_align_blocks =

my $all_aligns;

# Get a Bio::SimpleAlign object from every GenomicAlignBlock
foreach my $this_genomic_align_block (@$genomic_align_blocks) {
    my $simple_align = $this_genomic_align_block->get_SimpleAlign;
    push(@$all_aligns, $simple_align);

# print all the genomic alignments using a Bio::AlignIO object
my $alignIO = Bio::AlignIO->newFh(
    -interleaved => 0,
    -fh => \*STDOUT,
    -format => $output_format,
    -idlength => 10
foreach my $this_align (@$all_aligns) {
    print $alignIO $this_align;


Homologies and Protein clusters

All the homologies and families refer to GeneMembers and SeqMembers. Homology objects store orthologous and paralogous relationships between members and Family objects are clusters of members.

*Member objects

A member represent either a gene (GeneMember) or a sequence-bearing locus, e.g. a protein or a transcript (SeqMember). Most of them are defined in the corresponding EnsEMBL core database. For instance, the sequence for the human gene ENSG00000004059 is stored in the human core database.

The fetch_by_stable_id method of the corresponding *MemberAdaptor returns Members by their stable_id. Here is a simple example:

# get the MemberAdaptor
my $genemember_adaptor = Bio::EnsEMBL::Registry->get_adaptor('Multi','compara','GeneMember');

# fetch a Member
my $member = $genemember_adaptor->fetch_by_stable_id('ENSG00000004059');

# print out some information about the Member
print $member->source_name, ": ", $member->dnafrag->name, " ( ", $member->dnafrag_start, " - ", $member->dnafrag_end, " ): ", $member->description, "\n";

The *Member objects have several attributes:

  • stable_id define this member.
  • chr_name, dnafrag_start, dnafrag_end, dnafrag_strand locate this member on the genome but are only available for ENSEMBLGENE and ENSEMBLPEP.
  • taxon_id corresponds to the NCBI taxonomy identifier (see for more details).
  • taxon returns a Bio::EnsEMBL::Compara::NCBITaxon object. From this object you can get additional information about the species.
  • source_name is a string describing where the Member comes from
    for GeneMember
    • ENSEMBLGENE, derived from an EnsEMBL gene
    • EXTERNALGENE, loaded from an external source (currently unused in the live databases)
    for SeqMember
    • ENSEMBLPEP, derived from an EnsEMBL translation
    • ENSEMBLTRANS, derived from an EnsEMBL transcript
    • Uniprot/SWISSPROT, derived from a Uniprot/Swissprot entry
    • Uniprot/SPTREMBL, derived from a Uniprot/SP-TrEMBL entry
    • EXTERNALPEP, loaded from an external source (currently unused in the live databases)
    • EXTERNALLTRANS, loaded from an external source (currently unused in the live databases)
my $taxon = $member->taxon;
print "common_name ", $taxon->common_name,"\n";
print "genus ", $taxon->genus,"\n";
print "species ", $taxon->species,"\n";
print "binomial ", $taxon->binomial,"\n";
print "classification ", $taxon->classification,"\n";

In our example the species is human, so the output will look like this:

common_name:    human
genus:          Homo
species:        sapiens
binomial:       Homo sapiens
classification:	sapiens Homo Hominidae Catarrhini Haplorrhini Primates Euarchontoglires Eutheria Mammalia Euteleostomi Vertebrata Craniata Chordata Metazoa Eukaryota

Homology Objects

A Homology object represents either an orthologous or paralogous relationships between two members.

Typically you want to get homologies for a given gene. The HomologyAdaptor has a fetching method called fetch_all_by_Member(). You will need the GeneMember object for your query gene, therefore you will fetch the GeneMember first like in this example:

# first you have to get a GeneMember object. In case of homology is a gene, in 
# case of family it can be a gene or a protein

my $gene_member_adaptor = Bio::EnsEMBL::Registry->get_adaptor('Multi', 'compara', 'GeneMember');
my $gene_member = $gene_member_adaptor->fetch_by_stable_id('ENSG00000004059');

# then you get the homologies where the member is involved

my $homology_adaptor = Bio::EnsEMBL::Registry->get_adaptor('Multi', 'compara', 'Homology');
my $homologies = $homology_adaptor->fetch_all_by_Member($gene_member);

# That will return a reference to an array with all homologies (orthologues in
# other species and paralogues in the same one)
# Then for each homology, you can get all the Members implicated

foreach my $homology (@{$homologies}) {
  # You will find different kind of description
  # see ensembl-compara/docs/docs/schema_doc.html for more details

  print $homology->description," ", $homology->taxonomy_level,"\n";

  # And if they are defined dN and dS related values

  print " dn ", $homology->dn,"\n";
  print " ds ", $homology->ds,"\n";
  print " dnds_ratio ", $homology->dnds_ratio,"\n";

Each homology relation has exactly 2 members, you should find there the initial member used as a query. The get_all_Members method returns an array of SeqMember objects. The SeqMember is actually an AlignedMember (for the underlying protein) and contains information about how this SeqMember has been aligned.

my $homology = $homologies->[0]; # take one of the homologies and look into it

foreach my $member (@{$homology->get_all_Members}) {

  # each AlignedMember contains both the information on the SeqMember and in
  # relation to the homology

  print (join " ", map { $member->$_ } qw(stable_id taxon_id))."\n";
  print (join " ", map { $member->$_ } qw(perc_id perc_pos perc_cov))."\n";


You can get the original alignment used to define an homology:

use Bio::AlignIO;

my $simple_align = $homology->get_SimpleAlign();
my $alignIO = Bio::AlignIO->newFh(
    -interleaved => 0,
    -fh => \*STDOUT,
    -format => "clustalw",
    -idlength => 20);

print $alignIO $simple_align;

Family Objects

Families are clusters of proteins including all the EnsEMBL proteins plus all the metazoan SwissProt and SP-Trembl entries. The object and the adaptor are really similar to the previous ones.

my $gene_member_adaptor = Bio::EnsEMBL::Registry->get_adaptor('Multi', 'compara', 'GeneMember');
my $gene_member = $gene_member_adaptor->fetch_by_stable_id('ENSG00000004059');

my $family_adaptor = Bio::EnsEMBL::Registry->get_adaptor('Multi','compara','Family');
my $families = $family_adaptor->fetch_all_by_GeneMember($gene_member);

foreach my $family (@{$families}) {
    print join(" ", map { $family->$_ }  qw(description description_score))."\n";

    foreach my $member (@{$family->get_all_Members}) {
        print $member->stable_id," ",$member->taxon_id,"\n";

    my $simple_align = $family->get_SimpleAlign();
    my $alignIO = Bio::AlignIO->newFh(
        -interleaved => 0,
        -fh          => \*STDOUT,
        -format      => "phylip",
        -idlength    => 20);

    print $alignIO $simple_align;

    $simple_align = $family->get_SimpleAlign(-seq_type => 'cds');
    $alignIO = Bio::AlignIO->newFh(
        -interleaved => 0,
        -fh          => \*STDOUT,
        -format      => "phylip",
        -idlength    => 20);

    print $alignIO $simple_align;

Further help

For additional information or help mail the ensembl-dev mailing list. You will need to subscribe to this mailing list to use it.