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  Jan. 29, 2020

ENTREZ documentation: documentation

Goal: To learn how to search for sequences in the NCBI database, using blncbi to sort through the hits.

1. Create a working directory

I can't repeat this often enough. ALWAYS create a new directory for each project.

cd tutorials
mkdir findseq
cd findseq

go into tutorials directory
create a directory called findseq
go into the findseq directory

Next, open the BIRCH launcher, from which we can run any program in the BIRCH system. One way to launch BIRCH is to type 'birch' at the command line. This will open the BIRCH launcher in your findseq directory.

Alternatively, click on the BIRCH icon on your desktop . The BIRCH launcher will appear

For this tutorial, we will be using the BIRCH blncbi application to search for sequences at NCBI. Choose Data Mining --> blncbi to launch blncbi.
A chooser will appear on your screen asking for the name of the directory in which you wish to work. Choose 'tutorials/findseq' and click on Open.

blncbi will appear on the screen. blncbi has several functions for searching NCBI, and results are displayed in a spreadsheet panel.

There are four tabs pages in the Nucleotide Query menu.

Query - Allows you to build a query of up to 8 search terms. For each term, choose the field to limit the search, and type in the value. If you choose the Feature Key field, also choose the Feature Key to search. For example, choosing the 'intron' feature key would limit retrievals to only those sequences for which introns are annotated.

Pull-down widgets let you group terms with parentheses, and join terms using AND, NOT or OR. 

At the bottom of the window, you cal also limit searches to a particular molecule type eg. tRNA, rRNA, ncRNA etc.

What you need to know about databases
All information in a database is organized into fields. Each field holds a value. For example, if you had a database of people, it might look something like this:


There are three fields in each record: FirstName, LastName, and Phone. Each record has a unique value for each field. (Think of a field name as a variable from algebra.) Any database search program will allow you to search for records which have specific values for one or more fields. All entries in which the field(s) match the specified value are returned.

For searching the NCBI databases, the Query tab lets you specify values for one or more fields, and then retrieves entries which match those values.

Database - Sets the database to search.

Limits - Allows you to retrieve only hits in a particular size range, and to increase or decrease the number of hits retrieved.

Where you know the approximate size of the sequence you want, setting a narrow Min.-Max range can limit a search that would otherwise have hundreds of thousands of hits to a small enough number that you can view them in the output.

In such cases, you might increase the maximum hits retrieved to, say, 5000. If you sort the hits by size or even title, you can often quickly scan by eye to find the sequences you really want.

Output - Allows you to specify how the output is saved or formatted. By default, the format is Summary, which returns output as a table. Although you could change the format to GenBank, the Summary is usually best, since you could always retrieve GenBank entries from the Summary itself.

By default, Summary output goes to a new blncbi window, which lets you screen the output, and retrieve selected sequences. If you wish the output to directly to a fiel, choose Output file, and make sure to type in an output filename eg. results.tsv. The .tsv file extension indicates that the Summary output is in TAB-separated value format, which can be read directly by blncbi, or any spreadsheet program.

2. Finding sequences when you know the Accession number

In many cases, you already know the Accession number of a sequence, typically because it is listed in the publication.
As an example, we'll search for the plasmid vector pUC19, whose accession number is M77789.

Choose Database --> Nucleotide which will open the query builder. The query builder lets you create query statements which connect keywords with relations such as AND, OR, NOT and parentheses. You can also choose specific databases to search, set parameters limiting things such as sequence length or number of hits to retrieve, and where to send the output.

Set query term 1 to search the Accession field of GenBank entries for the Accession number M77789. Click on Run: Output to new window.

Blncbi presents output in a spreadsheet, which is particularly useful for viewing large numbers of hits.

Things to note:

Since there is only one hit, we want to retrieve this one. Click on M77789 in column A, and then choose Database --> Seqfetch. By default, seqfetch will retrieve results to bldna, a BioLegato application for working with DNA sequences. This is usually the best choice, since bldna can always save your sequences from bldna, or open them for viewing in programs such as a text editor or the Artemis Genome Viewer. Click on Run to retrieve your sequence.

The sequence is retrieved from NCBI to a bldna window.

3.Viewing and saving sequences

BioLegato applications such as blncbi and bldna are really programs that launch other programs. Thus, they serve to organize large sets of programs into a coherent user interface. Once you have retrieved sequences, there is a large array of tasks that can be done.

In these tutorials, we'll see that all tasks run through BioLegato fall into four basic steps:
  1. Select a sequence by clicking once on the sequence name. If you wish to select several sequences, hold down the CTRL key, and click on the name of each sequence.
  2. Choose a program from the menus
  3. Set the parameters and click on Run to start the program.
  4. Output appears in one or more windows.
If you get empty output or no output at all, it's probably because you forgot to select a sequence.

Saving sequences

Since we already know that this is the sequence we want, it's best to save it now, before proceeding further.
Select the sequence by clicking on its name, SYNPUC19V. Choose File --> Save SELECTION AS. To give the file a name that is more descriptive than the Accession number, let's call it pUC19.gen. To preserve all sequence annotation, set the file format to GenBank. Click on Run to save.

In the file manager (finder on Mac) you should now see this sequence in your findseq directory.

(Files whose names begin with 'bioxxxx' are temporary files created by BioLegato. These should automatically be deleted when BioLegato terminates.)

Viewing sequences

To view your sequence in a text editor, you could either click on pUC19.gen in the file manager, or from bldna, File --> View Sequences. The pull-down menu lets you choose which sequence format you wish to view. For example, if you wanted to paste the sequence into a web program that requires sequences in FASTA format, you could set the format to FASTA. For now, we'll view the complete GenBank entry, which is the default. Click "Run" to view.

The GenBank file will pop up in the default text editor for your BIRCH installation, in this case, gedit.

It is often useful to keep the sequence view open on the screen for reference while doing other tasks. For example, if you scroll down to the FEATURES table, you can see the annotations for different parts of this vector.

A more elaborate program for viewing sequences and their features is the Artemis Genome Browser. In bldna, choose Database --> artemis.

Artemis is a sophisticated genome browser and annotator, used in many genome projects. The wide array of functions and capabilities of artemis are beyond the scope of this tutorial. However, an introduction to Artemis is found in the BIRCH tutorial . See Genome Visualization with ARTEMIS for an in-depth introduction.

Working with sequences

Although bldna can perform a large array of tasks on DNA and RNA sequences, we will illustrate only two of them here.
First, let's try printing a sequence along with its translation in three reading frames using NUMSEQ. Choose DNA/RNA --> NUMSEQ. A menu will pop up allowing us to set different parameters for printing the sequence. At this point, don't change any parameters. Just click on Run.

By default, NUMSEQ will print sequences in 7 groups of 10 nucleotides per line.

Say that we wanted to see both strands of the sequence, along with a translation of the forward strand. Re-run NUMSEQ after setting the following parameters:

write in GROUPs of 15
Both strands
Reading frames: Three

Click on Run to proceed.

The output appears as shown below. Note that translation of the top strand is shown in each of 3 reading frames, using the 1-letter amino acid code. Stop codons are seen as asterisks (*).

Bldna can generate a report of restriction sites found in a sequence using BACHREST.


The BACHREST menu lets you customize your search base on whether or not an enzyme is comerically available, the type of ends it generates, whether or not the recognition sequence is symmetric or asymmetric,  the length of the recognition sequence, or the number of fragments generated.

To see the output with the default settings, click on Run.

Things to note:

  • Sequence information and search parameters are shown at the top of the report.
  • Enzyme - name of the enzyme
  • Recog. Seq. - 1-strand formula for the restriction site, with the cut site indicated by a caret (^), or for asymmetric sites, the position before which the enzymes cuts on each strand.
  • # of sites - the number of sites
  • Sites - the 5' coordinate of the top strand in a site
  • columns 5 - 7:
    • Frags - size of fragment
    • Begin - 5' coordinate of top  strand of fragment
    • End - 3' coordinate of top strand of fragment.
Note: Highlighting colors are an artifact of the gedit editor, and have no specific meaning in this context.

3. Finding sequences using keywords

It is often the case that you don't have an Accession number for a sequence, but do have limited information regarding the sequence. For example, there is a family of plasmid vectors going by the name of Bluescript. There are four Bluescript vectors.  The pBluescript SK (+/-) vectors have the multiple cloning site (MCS) in the coding orientation of the lacZ gene, going from SacI to KpnI, 5' to 3'.  The pBluescript KS (+/-) vectors have the MCS in the opposite orientation, going from KpnI to SacI, 5' to 3' relative to the direction of lacZ transcription. For each set there are two vectors, designaged by (+) if the f1 origin of replication is in the opposite direction relative to lacZ, or (-) if the f1 origin is in the same orientation relative to lacZ. Consequently, these vectors have the designations pBluescript SK (+), pBluescript SK (-), pBluescript KS (+) and pBluescript KS (-). An information sheet commonly distributed with the Bluescript vectors is found in the file bluescript.pdf.

Finding these vectors is actually more of a challenge than one might first imagine. This section illustrates ways of narrowing the search to a manageable number of hits, that can be identified for retrieval.

First, make sure you have a fresh blncbi window. If you have blncbi open, you can create a new window with File --> New Window. Otherwise, launch blncbi from the BIRCH launcher using Data Mining --> blncbi.

Open the query builder using Database --> Nucleotide. Let's do the simplest search first. For query term 1, the default is to search ALL FIELDS. Set the search term to 'bluescript'. Click on Run: Output to a new window to begin the search.

There are 345462 hits. In retrospect, this number shouldn't be too surprising, because the Bluescript vectors and their derivatives have been widely-used in cloning for decades.

Let's try limiting the search by changing the search field to Title, so that only those entries in which Bluescript in which 'bluescript' appears in the title will be returned.

The search indicates that there are 35,102 hits. This is an improvement by a factor of 10, but still too many hits to examine by inspection. Most of those hits are probably from clones that were made using a Bluescript vector.

The Bluescript-related vectors are probably a very small percentage of those hits.That means that we can eliminate most clones by limiting the search to the GenBank Synthetic division, which only has synthetic sequences. We join the two search terms by choosing 'AND', and rerun the search.

Well that was disappointing.

This example illustrates that searches of the NCBI databases can be counterintuitive. I have no idea why the actual vectors themselves weren't found, because as we'll see later, they are in fact in the Synthetic division. (Repeating the search using variants such as "Bluescript" and "SYN" gives the same result).

Looking again at bluescript.pdf, we see that the term 'phagemid' is prominent in the title. Let's us this as the search term instead of 'bluescript'.  Also, turn off AND and remove 'syn' from query term 2, because that term caused us to miss bluescript previously.

Okay, 656 hits are a manageable number to scan by inspection. We didn't get the actual hits because by default blncbi will only show hits if there are 500 or fewer.

To see the hits go to back to the Nucleotide query and open the Limits tab.

Change "Do not retrieve if number exceeds" to something larger than 656 eg. 700.

Repeat the search.

The result is shown at right.

As a quick way to see if the Bluescript vectors are in the list, you could try sorting the output by sequence length. Choose Edit --> BLSORT and set the 1st sort key to column 4 (shown as D in BioLegato).

If you remembered that Bluescript was just a bit under 3kb in length, you could try scrolling through the sorted output to the correct size range, as shown in column D.


Select all four by holding down the CTRL key and clicking on each Accession number.

Retrieve these entries using Database --> SEQFETCH.


Select the four sequences in bldna, and choose File --> View sequences, with the output format set to GenBank. A quick look at the LOCUS lines of the four sequences in this file will verify that these sequences are indeed in the Synthetic (SYN) division.

To save all sequences to a single file, choose File --> Save ALL as.

Set the File Name to bluescript.gen, and make sure Files of Type is set to GenBank. Save the file.