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Posts tagged ‘ontology’

What might we (systematists) want out of phenotype ontologies

Quick note ahead of the main entry: New paper by István Mikó et al. 2015. Generating semantic phenotypes. Worth a careful read.

The innovative paper by Ramírez & Michalik (2014) made for (another) lively discussion last week. The paper is rich with ideas and densely presented, which motivated an attempt by us to enumerate the sequence of data production and analytical steps. Another interesting question is to what extent (and why!) the authors’ approach moves away from the prevalent multi-taxon phenotype ontology approach. For instance, statements like the following (page 642) depart from the prevalent OBO language:

“As the Spider Ontology arose to manage the morphological concepts used in phylogenetic datasets, it is natural that it incorporated much of the pre-processed homology correspondences on its structure and definitions, to make room for the variety of form and function that the same organ may have in different organisms. In this way, the ontology accommodates the vast majority of homology statements currently accepted in spider systematics.”

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Weekly reading: Ramirez et al. on structural complexity in ancestral ontologies (again)

Last week we read and appreciated Seltmann et al.’s (2012) effort to carefully describe the benefits, use, and user community roll-out of the spectacularly well annotated Hymenoptera Anatomy Ontology Portal. We clearly need and want something like this for Coleoptera. That said, we continue to explore options to maybe do things a little differently. Looking for inspiration, we are reading once more what is to my mind one of the best demonstrations of how phenotype ontologies can be used to address research questions – by phylogenetic systematists, for phylogenetic systematists.

Ramírez, M.J. & P. Michalik. 2014. Calculating structural complexity in phylogenies using ancestral ontologies. Cladistics (Early View). Available here.

We are also starting, based on this semester’s cumulative readings, to formulate some interests of our own. Hence the following homework for all; due by next Wednesday’s discussion.

Formulate three research themes or questions that are comparative/phylogenetic in nature and could possibly make use of phenotype ontologies. Be very specific; ideally starting with the taxonomic group and character system that you are most intimately acquainted with. (in my case, e.g., that might be acalyptine weevil mouthparts). Best to work outward from the current core of your taxonomic expertise. Research ideas might take into account (yet are clearly not limited to):

  • Evolution of phenotype complexity, reduction.
  • Correlations across character systems.
  • Presence/absence of traits across larger phylogenetic groups and within/among subgroups.
  • Relationships of traits to non-organismal variables (e.g., environment).
  • Annotations and inferences targeting the specimen level versus or higher taxon entities.
  • Evolutionary rates, timing.
  • Associations, coevolutionary themes.
  • Information availability, completeness, suitability for analysis.
  • … [insert your favored domain of phenomena or inquiry here]

The idea is to engage in a bit of a reverse engineering exercise. We know that the earliest phenotype ontologies came out of the model organism community – what Nelson & Platnick (1981) might refer to as “general biology” (pages 4-5). Yet systematists tend to ask comparative questions. What (if any) general structures, entities, and relationships do these comparative/phylogenetic questions entail? Which kinds of inferences are we (most) interested in? How would the components needed to accommodate the inferences be fruitfully translated into a logic framework?

In other words, let’s pretend we are well advised to engage in some conceptual modeling for the future design of a Coleoptera Anatomy Ontology (which may not carry such a name in the end). Start with nailing down our most highly domain-specific questions. Abstract overarching design needs from these. Pretend that solutions will follow.

New publication: Reasoning over taxonomic change – Perelleschus

The first, fleshed out use case of the Euler/X project was published yesterday in PLoS ONE. This paper is a companion to the phylogenetic revision of the acalyptine weevil genus Perelleschus sec. Franz & Cardona-Duque (2013), and translates the 54 taxonomic concepts and 75 RCC-5 articulations provided in that paper into 13 logically consistent alignments and visualizations, with additional inferred articulations.

Franz, N.M., M. Chen, S. Yu, P. Kianmajd, S. Bowers & B. Ludäscher. 2015. Reasoning over taxonomic change: exploring alignments for the Perelleschus use case. PLoS ONE 10(2): e0118247. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0118247. Available on-line here.

Very glad to see this one published; at the same time there are other use case papers in the pipeline (Andropogon, Primates). The particular motivation for this paper was to resolve sets of several small-scale yet taxonomically and phylogenetically complex input trees with the RCC-5 concept alignment approach and Euler/X toolkit. The paper is written in a “how to?” style, successively exploring and explaining the connections between the user-provided input constraints and the over-, under-, or well-specified reasoning outcomes. It deals with issues of logical consistency, input sufficiency, ambiguity, and alternative ways to align (parent) concepts in reference to either (1) their intensionally circumscribed properties (which may include synapomorphies) or (2) the ostensively indicated members. This corresponds to the program outlined in Franz & Thau (2010).

One reviewer wrote: “With an exceptionally suited use case, the complexity of taxonomic reasoning and its translation to machine processing are depicted in unprecedented form.” Our ultimate goal is to develop a widely applicable reference and linkage system for taxonomic products that human users create but which is actually optimized for computational processing – without compromising the Linnaean system whose services to humans are profoundly valuable.

Weekly reading: Seltmann et al. on hymenopterists’ guide to the Hymenoptera Anatomy Ontology

If it were that kind of semester, maybe it would be neat to summarize our thoughts on all the ways in which last week’s paper – one of the theoretical foundations of the OBO Foundry approach – was puzzling to us. But, so far it isn’t (that kind of semester). Just three thoughts then.

1. Many of us seem to want to be realists.

2. Whatever the merits of the theory, implementation matters too. The two need not always be entirely and reciprocally consistent. (that is putting things mildly)

3. Consider this statement by Smith (2004), top of page 79 in the publisher paper.

“Good ontologies are reality representations, and the fact that such representations are possible is shown by the fact that, as is documented in our scientific textbooks, very many of them have already been achieved, though of course always only at some specific level of granularity and to some specific degree of precision, detail and completeness.”

I think it is fair to say that this statement leaves room for both the empiricist and the realist acknowledging the importance of theories and concepts in science while not elevating them a priori to a level where they are either unassailably reliable or misguided. It is a sensible enough statement to make. Strangely, to my thinking at least, Smith takes this statement to work as something of a wedge between reality- and concept-based ontology design maxims. But the statement itself speaks more to the notion of reality (which by the way remains under-defined) and concepts being intertwined in scientific advancement. Whatever else may be said here, we concluded that following his outlined path does require ‘a strong ontological commitment’. I doubt that this message has been received and ratified by most practitioners.

Anyway, onto to more practical issues; up this week:

Seltmann, K., M. Yoder, I. Miko, M. Forshage, M. Bertone, D. Agosti, A. Austin, J. Balhoff, M. Borowiec, S. Brady, G. Broad, D. Brothers, R. Burks, M. Buffington, H. Campbell, K. Dew, A. Ernst, J. Fernandez-Triana, M. Gates, G. Gibson, J. Jennings, N. Johnson, D. Karlsson, R. Kawada, L. Krogmann, R. Kula, M. Ohl, C. Rasmussen, F. Ronquist, S. Schulmeister, M. Sharkey, E. Talamas, E. Tucker, L. Vilhelmsen, P. Ward, R. Wharton & R. Deans. 2012. A hymenopterists’ guide to the Hymenoptera Anatomy Ontology: utility, clarification, and future directions. Journal of Hymenoptera Research 27: 67-88. Available on-line here.

Weekly reading: Smith 2004 on ontology as reality representation

Last week’s paper on the merits of “realism as practiced by the BFO” left us with a sense of dissatisfaction (which cannot fairly be credited to the paper itself). First, since this was predominantly a “con” paper, it seems important to also examine the “pro” stance. And second, yes, we are getting further away from applications. We will address both issues, though necessarily in sequence. Therefore, up this week is a foundations paper on how to conceive of and construct realist (OBO-compliant) ontologies.

Smith, B. 2004. Beyond concepts: ontology as reality representation; pp. 73-84. In: Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Formal Ontology in Information Systems (FOIS 2004); November 4-6, 2014; Torino, Italy. IOS Press, Amsterdam. Available on-line here.

Weekly reading: Adding a little reality to building ontologies for biology

We are moving from practical designs and implementations of ontologies in systematics to design theory. One issue to understand, or least have an intuitive position on, is the strength of the interaction or interdependency between ontology design and functionality. And “design” could reach as far up the chain of representation as “why Description Logics and not another flavor of logic?” The term “Realism” plays a role. About five years ago there was a fairly spirited debate on this topic, reviewed here. We are reading one paper from the longer list.

Lord, P. & R. Stevens. 2010. Adding a little reality to building ontologies for biology. PLoS ONE 5(9): e12258. Available on-line here.

Weekly reading: Balhoff et al. on a semantic model for wasp species description

Following Daduhl et al. and Vogt et al., our third paper in the phenotype ontologies Weekly Discussion series will dive into an applied example by Balhoff and co-authors (mainly of the Deans Lab) with a clear taxonomic emphasis. Already we have seen that different scientific orientations draw on phenotype ontologies with the expectation of reframing and solving specific problem complexes.

Daduhl et al.‘s focus was firmly within the bounds of evolutionary and phylogenetic analyses of phenotypes across broader and deeper taxonomic scales. Implementation challenges notwithstanding, there was an underlying agreement that the legacy of phenotype-centric systematic work could be appropriated towards the outlined representation and inference goals.

Vogt et al., in turn, emphasized a need for consistent, machine-processable standards with regards to phenotype syntactics, semantics, etc.; including a separation of descriptive and evolutionary/explanatory elements in our morphological terminology. This has the makings of a potentially divergent paradigm in relation to Daduhl et al.‘s program and perspective.

Another interesting development is the Phenoscape team’s exploration of homology relations in ontologies, outlined here: http://phenoscape.org/wiki/Reasoning_over_homology_statements.

In light of these different lines of research, we set ourselves two immediate questions to address:

1. What are actual applications that utilize phenotype ontologies and (optionally) reasoning for (a) multi-taxon studies with (b) an evolutionary/systematic orientation?

2. Suppose we had the “awesome ontology & reasoning” infrastructure on hand, where current technological limits no longer apply. What kinds of questions would  we ask this infrastructure to solve for us (that cannot be addressed otherwise)?

The paper for next week applies directly to these questions.

Balhoff, J.P., I. Mikó, M.J. Yoder, P.L. Mullins & A.R. Deans. 2013. A semantic model for species description applied to the ensign wasps (Hymenoptera: Evaniidae) of New Caledonia. Systematic Biology 62: 639–659. Available on-line here.