Knowledgebase tutorial now available

October 4, 2012

The Phenoscape team has created a tutorial introduction to the Knowledgebase. The tutorial is designed to introduce users to exploring phenotypic data in the Phenoscape Knowledgebase, starting with searching for anatomical terms, browsing data using faceted browsing, and performing searches using the query panel. Let us know if you find it helpful in getting started with the KB.

Link: Phenoscape Knowledgebase tutorial

Junior Biocurator

September 11, 2012

This summer, with the help of non-profit organization Project Exploration (, we ran the Junior Biocurator program for the first time. This is the ‘outreach’ part of the Phenoscape project. The program content and structure was designed by Paul Sereno, Lauren Conroy, Nicole Ridgwell and myself. The program includes several lectures, covering topics as diverse as biocuration, comparative anatomy and photography techniques. Lectures were given by Lauren Conroy, Erin Fitzgerald, Nicole Ridgwell and myself. Nicole also supervised the day to day activities and labs. In their ‘hands on’ time the students acquired a whole array of impressive new skills, outlined below.

I was a little worried that the Jr Biocurators would find the curriculum to be too demanding and difficult, but the five students – Haley, Kyle, Hope, Michael and Kamal – really enjoyed their time and impressed everybody with their curiosity, enthusiasm and overall performance in the many exercises and other tasks they had to complete. The students learned how to put together vertebrate skeletons, how to organize biological information in an ontology, and how to take high quality photographs of vertebrate bones. They also learned how to manipulate these images in Photoshop, effectively creating publication quality image files. As if that was not enough, towards the end of the program, they learned how to use a laser scanner and visualized the bones in a whole new way. The images they created (photography and scanning) will be used by us – first in Protege and ultimately in the Phenoscape user interface. Our Jr Biocurators were extremely proud when they heard that their work would make a real, tangible contribution to a major NSF funded project.

While we were putting together the curriculum, I suggested we also offer the students opportunities to learn more about university life in general. Nicole took them to the University of Chicago admissions office, were they could ask all their questions, and they also went on a big campus tour and visited the Oriental Institute Museum (which is part of our university). This part of the curriculum was also extremely well received.

Running the program was a lot of work, but it was all worth it, considering that our Jr Biocurators all became good friends (and good young budding scientists!) and were genuinely sad when the program ended. I am looking forward to meeting the next Jr Biocurators in 2013 and am no longer worried about the degree of difficulty of the curriculum.

To find out more about the program and read some of the blog posts our Biocurators wrote visit:

Nizar Ibrahim,

University of Chicago

Adding Amphibians to Phenoscape

March 7, 2012

On 15–16 February 2012, I visited NESCent to work with Peter Midford, Jim Balhoff, and, especially, Wasila Dahdul. The focus of my trip was to push forward on the continued development of the Amphibian Anatomical Ontology and the integration of phenotypic data for amphibians into the larger Phenoscape project.

With Peter Midford, I worked to make a significant update to the Amphibian Taxonomy Ontology based largely on a recent revision to the higher-level taxonomy used on AmphibiaWeb (for which I am part of the steering committee). AmphibiaWeb provides an excellent resource for Phenoscape and other related projects because it provides a list of currently recognized species of living amphibians and is updated daily.

The majority of my visit was spent working with Wasila Dahdul on issues related to the Amphibian Anatomy Ontology (AAO) and on curating our first evolutionary dataset related to the fin–limb transition (Ruta et al., 2003). During this work, we plowed through a significant portion of AAO terms lacking parent terms (either adding parents or synonymizing the terms with others in either VAO or AAO). We also evaluated whether to add terms to the AAO that are present in the Xenopus Anatomy Ontology (XAO; Xenopus is a genus of African frogs used as a model system) but absent in the AAO. In some cases, this led to recommending that those terms be removed from the XAO. As we have started to curate morphological characters related to the limbs from the study by Ruta et al. (2003), we encountered many terms not present in existing anatomy ontologies, such as AAO or the Vertebrate Anatomy Ontology. Some terms had been slated for inclusion in the Amniote Anatomy Ontology (AmAO) being developed by Nizar Ibrahim and Paul Sereno (University of Chicago). Because these terms are also present in non-amniotes, we are recommending that they be migrated from the AmAO to the higher-level VAO.

As we start to focus on curating phenotypes from the literature of vertebrate paleontology, a few issues are emerging. One important issue is that curation of data from paleontological studies will likely necessitate adding a field to our information for specimens to accommodate free text alongside museum abbreviations and catalog numbers. The reason for this is that paleontological studies can rely on a combination of materials, including both specimens and examination of literature. We will also need to add to and refine the collection of museum codes used to curate specimen data. These last points about accurately curating data related to specimens examined are important if we are to use the Phenoscape knowledgebase to point to records for those same specimens in on-line databases, or if databases (such as those for museum collections) want to point to records of specimens in the Phenoscape knowledgebase.

New summer course on anatomy ontologies

February 27, 2012

A summer course on anatomy ontologies is being offered for the first time through the NESCent Academy and the Phenotype Ontology Research Coordination Network.  The intended audience is postgraduate researchers in evolutionary biology and informatics – including students, postdocs and faculty – who are relative newcomers to ontologies.  It will be held from 30-Jul to 3-Aug  2012 in Durham, NC.  Spread the word, and if you are interested be sure to apply before the deadline of 6-Apr.  [Full disclosure: a number of long-time friends of Phenoscape are among the instructors].

From the course website:

Evolutionary research has been revolutionized by the explosion of genetic information available, and anatomy ontologies must play a central crucial in relating this knowledge to observable diversity. Anatomy ontologies and vocabularies are widely used to index data and are critical for relating gene expression and phenotype data across taxa. Within a single species, anatomy ontologies provide scaffolding that interconnects many kinds of observations; across species, they provide evolutionary, developmental, and mechanistic insights. In order for anatomy ontologies to successfully serve all of these purposes, they must be constructed consistently so that they can be utilized and understood by both researcher and software alike. This course aims to teach proper ontology design principles and practices such that anatomical interoperability across evolutionarily disparate taxa is achieved. It further seeks to promote community growth and adoption of ontology-based methods and tools. The subsequent benefit is in the form of shared access to the unique data store of each community (e.g. genetic, genomic, developmental, and evolutionary data).

The course covers a basic introduction to ontology design principles and usage, specific ontology considerations for anatomy, application of anatomy ontologies in the context of evolutionary phenotype comparison, and use of anatomy ontologies for image annotation in different taxa. There will be strong emphasis on hands-on exercises that will develop ontology skills and provide exposure to different software applications that are useful in variety of areas of evolutionary biology.

My Experience as a Phenoscape Training Fellow

November 22, 2011

While working to describe two species of lizardfish (Synodus) with Carole Baldwin at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, she received an email from Paula Mabee asking if she knew or had any students interested in working on the Phenoscape Project. I had realized that with advances in technology and communication, evolutionary biology and all science was headed towards a future of large-scale interdisciplinary collaborations to help address big questions and make tools and data readily available. Therefore, I immediately jumped on the opportunity to work on Phenoscape!

With the support of funding from DeepFin, I started my internship with Phenoscape at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) in August 2011. My three months here at NESCent have flown by and even though it is my last day, I am just as excited about the project as the day I started! Working with Wasial Dahdul, Peter Midford and Jim Balhoff has enabled me to learn and understand a great deal about databases, collaboration and morphology. Phenoscape has completely changed the way I think about phenotypic characters. Breaking them down into logical statements in Phenex really allows you to understand a character as it fits in the bigger picture. I was able to work with Wasila in forging interdisciplinary ties by contributing to other ontologies and databases, such as PATO and PaleoDB. Additionally, working to assist in the expansion of Phenoscape to incorporate all vertebrates taught me a lot about the origins of vertebrates and the plethora of prehistoric life I did not realize existed- including my new personal favorite prehistoric fish, Jagorina!

NESCent is an amazing place. Being one of the few people here without a higher degree or a long list of publications under their belt, I was initially a little intimidated. However, the informatics group, post-docs and professors have been great and pushed me to participate in seminars and intellectual discussion. This is a stimulating environment that facilitates thinking outside the box and looking at bigger picture issues in evolutionary biology.

I am excited to continue my work on Phenoscape offsite back at the Smithsonian and I hope to contribute throughout my graduate career in Dr. Brian Sidlauskas’s (former NESCentian and Phenoscape tester and contributor) lab at Oregon State University.

Ben Frable
Graduate Student, Oregon State University
Student Researcher, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Phenotype RCN announced

November 24, 2010

NSF has recently funded a Research Coordination Network for researchers who are interested in searching and comparing phenotypes across species and in developing the tools and methods needed in making this possible  (  The representation of morphology, behavior and other phenotypic features using computational methods such as ontologies and controlled vocabularies is in its infancy.  Integrating phenotypes with data across all levels of the biological hierarchy, however, is possible if standards are co-developed and coordinated.

This RCN envisions building a broad base of community knowledge and resources so as to maximize the research potential of web-based data.  Funding for participation in meetings, presentations and laboratory exchanges for students, postdocs and faculty from ontology and taxonomic domains (initially plants, arthropods, and vertebrates) is available through the RCN (see

We are eager to have you join us!  Please sign up for our participant and mailing lists for further information ( and feel free to contact one of the PIs (Paula Mabee,; Andy Deans,; Eva Huala,; and Suzanna Lewis,