FuGO Workshop Day 1

Today was day 1 of my first (but in reality the 2nd) FuGO Workshop. It was full of interesting ontology ideas for the realm of functional genomics and beyond. There were talks concerning new ontological communities (GCP by Martin Senger, BIRNLex by Bill Bug, Immunology Database and Analysis Portal by Richard Scheuerman, and IEDB by Bjoern Peters) first thing, followed by a very interesting discussion on OBO Foundry Principles and developments in a phenotype ontology for model organisms and a unit/measurement ontology.

The most interesting points made this morning (to me!) were:

  1. Richard Scheuerman: the Immunology DB and Analysis Portal group has been thinking closely about data relationships – how much do you capture in the ontology and how much in the corresponding data model? Their current answer is to use only an is_a in ontologies, and to capture more specific stuff in the data model. (As I understood it, they would like to change this to make the ontology more complex at a later date). With their ontology, they emphasized modeling the data based on how the data was going to be used (don’t go into too much detail of the robots, for example). In choosing what data fields to require, they realize that experimentalists would only be happy to fill out forms that had perhaps a dozen data fields, therefore it is important to choose fields which anticipate how users will want to query the database.
    I really like this idea of requiring only those fields which would be of most use to the biologist, rather than those that would make us bioinformaticians most happy. Hopefully with time, the biologist would be happy to fill out more of a FuGE data structure.
  2. The MIcheck Foundry, which will create a “suite of self-consistent, clearly bounted, orthogonal, integrable checklist modules”. This is coming out in a paper (currently in press in Nature Biotech by CF Taylor et al.). It will contain MICheck – a “common resource for minimum information checklists” analogous to obo/ncbo bioportal (analogous to a shop window for displaying these checklists). There are many minimum information checklists out there, and the number will only grow, so it makes a lot of sense.

The afternoon was characterized by good-natured “discussion”. Here’s a summary of the mild-mannered (but – seriously – quite interesting) discussions:

  1. Argument against multiple inheritance (MI) in application ontologies, by Barry Smith.
    The root of the problem is that one shouldn’t combine two diff classifications, e.g. color and car type (if trying to have a red cadillac inherit from both red car and cadillac). Instead there should be a color ontology and car ontology. Many ontologies were originally built to support administrative classifications, but his opinion is that when you’re doing science, you’re interested in capturing the law-like structures in reality, not administrative information. Barry says every instance in reality can fall into many types of classes – the issue is how to build the ontologies: you can capture these instances by having either separate single inheritance (SI) ontologies, or one single “messy” MI ontology. Further, if you have MI, you might not have reuseability (ie why have colors just in car ontology, when they could be reused if they were separate?). In response, Robert Stevens suggested that you could have MI and let a machine deal with the differences – take car and color ontology and combine them mechanically through the relationships you put between them: people shouldn’t be scared of multiple inheritance, just use it carefully.
    The final conclusion was that normalization can upack MI into SI as long as it is a “good” MI ontology, and therefore this can be a reasonable way of ensuring your MI ontology is still a strong one – most errors are associated with misuse or overuse of MI. Another way to think of it would be to have a set of SI reference ontologies, but in your application ontology you would use MI. SI is very useful, as it supports all sorts of reasoning algorithms / statistical tools that MI does not allow. So MI ontology ONLY works if you can break it down into a set of SIs. Normalize a MI in order to use the checking mechanism, and only use a MI if it can be normalized.
  2. I learnt today about fiat types (no – not a car!), and how they relate to a putative measurement/unit ontology. A unit is a fiat universal/type in the dimension we use it to measure. In other words, measurements involve fiat units. A measurement ontology should be about storing units, and therefore do NOT want numbers. Numbers are part of the data, not the ontology.

…And that was only the first day! Wowsers…


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