The rise of various bio-companies for high-throughput sequencing technology and open-source bioinformatic software suites for analysis thereof, has resulted in a equivalent rise of reference conventions (often species specific) to referring to genes, exons, transcripts, etc. Most useful of all of these conventions - to the biologist - is the common gene name (which itself likely has several aliases... an issue for another day).

For example, consider the gene KRAS: enter image description here

Thus it proves useful to convert genes from their ID (e.g. in this case P01116, or ENSG00000133703) to its common name (KRAS). To further drive this point home, consider IDs just within the same system - ENSEMBL. The human ID for KRAS is ENSG00000133703, while for mice the KRAS ID is ENSMUSG00000030265. Note that even stripping away the species specific element, yields different numerals. This type of situation might arise when one tries to compare two gene lists. My previous question, related to merging sets via ID, aims at finding efficient ways to combine different gene lists, once both have the same ID convention.


The goal of this question is to find the most efficient way of scanning a reference file for a gene's give ID, acquiring its associated gene name, and then replacing the original ID entry with the associated gene name. If this is unclear, an example comes shortly below.

Practice Data

For this question we will be using an ENSEMBL reference file. They are not large (ranging from ~30MB for yeast to ~200MB for humans). You can download such a file here:ENSEMBL BioMart.

To get the file do the following:

  1. On the drop down that states "- CHOOSE DATABASE -", select "Ensembl Genes 86"
  2. On the next drop down that states "- CHOOSE DATASET -" select whatever species you want. You could try "Mus musculus genes (GRCm38.p4)"
  3. On the left hand column, click "Attributes"
  4. On the new screen, click the box next to "GENE:"
  5. Add at least "Associated Gene Name" (you can also add other useful information such as "GENCODE basic annotation").
  6. At the top of the screen click results
  7. I prefer .CSV files, so you can change the file extension if you wish.
  8. Click Go to download the file. This link may or may not maintain the information (maybe good link)

Naturally if one works with gene lists often, it may be practical to get several different species.


Using SemanticImport we can see our reference file: enter image description here

For example purposes one could use RandomChoice to get a few IDs. I am just pasting the output here:

"ENSMUSG00000028334", "ENSMUSG00000054079", "ENSMUSG00000027575", 
"ENSMUSG00000041528", "ENSMUSG00000030231", "ENSMUSG00000078606", 
"ENSMUSG00000028559", "ENSMUSG00000028431", "ENSMUSG00000020253",

The corresponding gene names are:

{"Nans", "Utp18", "Arfgap1", "Rnf123", "Plekha5", 
 "Gm4070", "Osbpl9", "Ikbkap", "Ppm1m", "Cd164"}

Naturally the actual list may be quite large.

Thus if this is our starting file: enter image description here

We want to end up with: enter image description here

Note, these were printed using TableForm, but they are actually Datasets.

About this question

I am providing my own answer, as I know of a way to do it. However it is surely not the most efficient or elegant way to do so. Thus I am looking for other answers that given the following:

  • the file name
  • the starting ID column header (Ensembl ID)
  • the final ID column header (gene)
  • a gene list data set
  • and the column header of that set contain the column of IDs (see below)

enter image description here

replaces the IDs in the gene list with the converted gene name (or N/A if not found).

  • $\begingroup$ You may get better quality answers if you abstract the technical (ie the coding problem) out of the context of the business problem. Your verbose question tends to obscure the actual problem. Which bit of your code are you actually unsatisfied with. Additionally your way of framing the question makes it look rather like homework or an assignment, which may disincline people to help. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 17, 2016 at 7:13
  • $\begingroup$ @GordonCoale I have tried that on previous questions however I have received the exact opposite in advice saying that the abstracted problem was too vague. Hence the verbose contextual background that explicitly explains the problem in a very particular context. Should I included an abstracted question above it, and then maintain the rest as a "case study" to give clarity for those who may want it? $\endgroup$
    – SumNeuron
    Commented Oct 17, 2016 at 8:42

1 Answer 1


NOTE A less trivial example of this is provided here enter link description here

For the purpose of this question I created a folder "/somePath/Ensembl_Conversions/" which houses several species reference tables. I also converted them to .MX files.

Getting the file

Biologist often use shorthand to refer to species reference files, e.g. human is hg, mouse $\rightarrow$ mm, rat $\rightarrow$ rn, etc. Thus my reference files are named accordingly (e.g. mm.MX).

Should this be part of a more generalized project, it may be useful to be able to have someone just insert the common name to load the correct file.

speciesCommonName = <|"HUMAN" -> "hg", "MOUSE" -> "mm", "YEAST" -> "sc", "RAT" -> "rn"|>;

The following code returns the appropriate path to the file:

lu = Lookup[ToUpperCase@"mouse"]@speciesCommonName;
FileNames[___ ~~ lu ~~ ___ ~~ ".csv", NotebookDirectory[]]

Out: {/somePath/Ensembl_Conversions/mm.csv}

Loading the file

file = SemanticImport@

keys = Normal@Keys@First@file;

In this case we only have two columns with the word "Gene" in it so the following suffices:

Select[keys, StringContainsQ[#, "Gene"] &]

However, we could generalize that some:

  StringCases[keys, ___ ~~ "Gene" ~~ ___ ~~ "Name" ~~ ___], {}]
  StringCases[keys, ___ ~~ "Ensembl" ~~ ___ ~~ "Gene" ~~ ___], {}]

Naturally "Ensembl" can be swapped out for the reference system, and more sophisticated pattern matching could be implemented to ensure universality across different reference files.

Map IDs to Gene Names Here I just extract the two columns of interest in this exercise

data = file[All, Select[keys, StringContainsQ[#, "Gene"] &]];

and then create an association between the ID and the gene name:

A = AssociationThread[#[[;; , 1]], #[[;; , 2]]] &@Normal@data[Values];

Test to see if it works

Using the same demoIDs from above,

Lookup[#]@A & /@ demoIDs

lo and behold:

{"Nans", "Utp18", "Arfgap1", "Rnf123", "Plekha5", 
 "Gm4070", "Osbpl9", "Ikbkap", "Ppm1m", "Cd164"}

All together now

Lookup[AssociationThread[#[[;; , 1]], #[[;; , 2]]] &@
       Select[keys, StringContainsQ[#, "Gene"] &]][
      Values], #] & /@ demoIDs

{"Nans", "Utp18", "Arfgap1", "Rnf123", "Plekha5", 
 "Gm4070", "Osbpl9", "Ikbkap", "Ppm1m", "Cd164"}

Depending on how the gene list was imported (e.g. just a list of lists, or SemanticImport for a Dataset) replacing the gene name column may or may not be straight forward.

For the former:

geneList[[2;;,1]] = outputFromAbove;

For the latter, you can delete the original column and then use the answer supplied here adding column to Dataset.

Using the supplied data from that example:

data = {<|"col1" -> 1, "col2" -> 2|>, <|"col1" -> 3, "col2" -> 4|>, <|
"col1" -> 5, "col2" -> 6|>};
ds = Dataset[data]

We can add the first three genes like so:

Dataset@Table[Append[Normal@ds[[i]], "Gene" -> converetedGenes[[i]]], {i, 3}]

Alternatively, you can use the same id as before to overwrite the first column:

processed = Dataset@MapThread[Prepend{Normal@geneListFile,Thread["Genes" -> genes]}];

Where geneListFile is your the Dataset for the genes being converted and genes are the converted gene names.

To see where that code came from, click here


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