Manipulating tabular output with command-line tools

Introduction

Surprisingly, given that this is a website about programming, this article is going to be about how to avoid programming. Specifically: how to use simple existing command line tools to process tabular data.

Even for folks who are comfortable writing programs to process tabular data, being able to use command-line tools to slice, dice and generally manipulate data files is a useful skill to have. For very simple tasks it's often quicker to write a command line to do the job rather than switching mental gears and starting to write a new program. Also, the command line tools we'll be discussing here are likely to be faster than Python for many jobs.

Tabular data

By tabular data I mean simple text files where each line stores a single record and consists of a number of different fields separated by a delimiter. The delimiter – i.e. the thing that separates the fields – can be anything, but the most common examples are tabs, spaces, or commas. In this last case, we sometimes refer to the file as being in Comma Separated Value or CSV format.

Let's look at a few concrete examples. A common type of tabular file that we encounter in biology is BLAST output. Normally when we run BLAST, we get the output in a human-readable format which shows the alignments (or if we're using a web BLAST server we get a nice webpage with graphics). This format is easy for humans to read but not so easy for computers to deal with; if we need to do some processing of out BLAST results then tabular output is often a better option. We can get tabular output from BLAST by giving it the -m 9 option if we're using the old BLAST package, or giving it the -outfmt 7 option if we're using the newer BLAST+ package. If we're using a web-based BLAST server, we can download our results in tabular format using the download link at the top:

Selection_011

However we get hold of our tabular BLAST results they're going to look something like this:

# blastp
# Iteration: 0
# Query: my_protein
# RID: BFFAX0Z3015
# Database: nr
# Fields: query id, subject ids, % identity, % positives, alignment length, mismatches, gap opens, q. start, q. end, s. start, s. end, evalue, bit score
# 100 hits found
my_protein gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1| 100.00 100.00 599 0 0 1 599 1 599 0.0 1243
my_protein gi|397526517|ref|XP_003833169.1| 99.50 100.00 599 3 0 1 599 1 599 0.0 1240
my_protein gi|18104967|ref|NP_000953.2|;gi|317373262|sp|P23219.2|PGH1_HUMAN 99.83 99.83 599 1 0 1 599 1 599 0.0 1240
my_protein gi|674214810|gb|AIK97765.1| 99.83 99.83 599 1 0 1 599 1 599 0.0 1239
my_protein gi|694936914|ref|XP_009455498.1| 99.33 100.00 599 4 0 1 599 1 599 0.0 1239
...

This is only the first few lines; in reality there will be many more, but they'll all share the same format. The first few lines are comments which tell us various things – the name of the query, the number of hits, etc. By far the most important comment line is this one:

# Fields: query id, subject ids, % identity, % positives, alignment length, mismatches, gap opens, q. start, q. end, s. start, s. end, evalue, bit score

because it tells us the order of the fields in each of the result lines – in other words, it tells us how to interpret the other lines. From looking at the list of fields we can see that, for example, the second field in each line is the name of the subject sequence, and the fifth field is the length of the match.

We'll be using BLAST tabular output for the examples in this tutorial, but it's worth remembering that exactly the same tools can be used for any type of tabular data. For example, here's the first few lines of a BED file which holds annotation for genomic coordinates:

browser position chr7:127471196-127495720
browser hide all
track name="ItemRGBDemo" description="Item RGB demonstration" visibility=2
itemRgb="On"
chr7    127471196  127472363  Pos1  0  +  127471196  127472363  255,0,0
chr7    127472363  127473530  Pos2  0  +  127472363  127473530  255,0,0
chr7    127473530  127474697  Pos3  0  +  127473530  127474697  255,0,0
chr7    127474697  127475864  Pos4  0  +  127474697  127475864  255,0,0
chr7    127475864  127477031  Neg1  0  -  127475864  127477031  0,0,255
chr7    127477031  127478198  Neg2  0  -  127477031  127478198  0,0,255
chr7    127478198  127479365  Neg3  0  -  127478198  127479365  0,0,255
chr7    127479365  127480532  Pos5  0  +  127479365  127480532  255,0,0
chr7    127480532  127481699  Neg4  0  -  127480532  127481699  0,0,255

The data being stored are different, but the layout is just the same as our BLAST example: a handful of comment lines at the top followed by a bunch of lines with tab-separated fields. One more example: here's GFF format, also used for annotating sequence data:

X    Ensembl    Repeat    2419108    2419128    42    .    .    hid=trf; hstart=1; hend=21
X    Ensembl    Repeat    2419108    2419410    2502    -    .    hid=AluSx; hstart=1; hend=303
X    Ensembl    Repeat    2419108    2419128    0    .    .    hid=dust; hstart=2419108; hend=2419128
X    Ensembl    Pred.trans.    2416676    2418760    450.19    -    2    genscan=GENSCAN00000019335
X    Ensembl    Variation    2413425    2413425    .    +    .
X    Ensembl    Variation    2413805    2413805    .    +    .

Thinking about the data formats that you encounter in your own work will furnish further examples.

Before we dive in and start looking at the tools we can use to manipulate tabular data, a few points about your computing environment. In this tutorial we'll be looking at command-line tools – cut, sort, head, tail, uniq, wc, sed and awk. If you're running Linux, or any UNIX-flavoured operating system, including OSX, these tools are part of the standard library and should already be installed. If you're using Windows, you'll need to either install them (cygwin is probably the best way to do this) or find somebody who can give you an account on a Linux server.

All the example command lines we'll be looking at use the BLAST example from above – if you want to play along at home you can download a copy here. For the command-line examples below, the lines starting with a dollar sign ($) are the ones that we type, and the first few lines of the output is shown below. This will look slightly different on your machine depending on your settings.

Getting rid of comments

The first thing we need to do in order to start processing the file is to remove the comment lines at the start. There are seven comment lines, so we need to start looking at the eighth line. The easiest way to do this is with tail. The tail command is normally used for extracting the last few lines of a file, but with the -n option we can tell it to extract all the lines starting from a given line. Here, we want to start at line number eight, so we can use the command

$ tail -n +8 blast_example.txt
my_protein    gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1|    100.00    100.00    599    0    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1243
my_protein    gi|397526517|ref|XP_003833169.1|    99.50    100.00    599    3    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1240
my_protein    gi|18104967|ref|NP_000953.2|;gi|317373262|sp|P23219.2|PGH1_HUMAN    99.83    99.83    599    1    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1240
my_protein    gi|674214810|gb|AIK97765.1|    99.83    99.83    599    1    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1239
my_protein    gi|694936914|ref|XP_009455498.1|    99.33    100.00    599    4    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1239
my_protein    gi|387018|gb|AAA36439.1|    99.50    99.50    599    3    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1236

Notice that we have to put a plus sign (+) before the 8. The output of this command will be all the lines of the file from the eighth line onwards, which we can either save by redirecting it into a new file:

$ tail -n +8 blast_example.txt >blast_example_nocomments.txt

or use a pipe to send the output directly to another program:

$ tail -n +8 blast_example.txt | some_other_program

For the rest of the examples we'll use the file _blast_examplenocomments.txt so that we don't need to worry about the comment lines.

Extracting fields

One of the simplest things we can do with tabular data is to just display the fields we're interested in. The command for doing this is called cut, and we use the -f option to say which field we want to extract. For example, we can extract just the percent identity for each hit, which is stored in the third field:

$ cut -f 3 blast_example_nocomments.txt
100.00
99.50
99.83
99.83
99.33
99.50

To get multiple fields, we just list them separated by commas. Here's how to get the hit name, number of missmatches, and bitscore:

$ cut -f 2,6,13 blast_example_nocomments.txt
gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1|    0     1243
gi|397526517|ref|XP_003833169.1|    3     1240
gi|18104967|ref|NP_000953.2|;gi|317373262|sp|P23219.2|PGH1_HUMAN    1     1240
gi|674214810|gb|AIK97765.1|    1     1239
gi|694936914|ref|XP_009455498.1|    4     1239
gi|387018|gb|AAA36439.1|    3     1236
gi|76885916|gb|ABA60099.1|    1     1234
...

Notice that in the output from this command, the fields don't line up nicely because some of the hit names are longer than others. By piping the results to the column -t command we can get the fields to line up:

$ cut -f 2,6,13 blast_example_nocomments.txt | column -t
gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1|                                        0  1243
gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1|                                        0  1243
gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1|                                        0  1243
gi|397526517|ref|XP_003833169.1|                                  3  1240
gi|18104967|ref|NP_000953.2|;gi|317373262|sp|P23219.2|PGH1_HUMAN  1  1240
gi|674214810|gb|AIK97765.1|                                       1  1239
gi|674214810|gb|AIK97765.1|                                       1  1239
gi|694936914|ref|XP_009455498.1|                                  4  1239
gi|387018|gb|AAA36439.1|                                          3  1236
gi|76885916|gb|ABA60099.1|                                        1  1234

Be careful when using column -t, as the fields are effectively padded to the length of the longest value, so if you have a very long value somewhere in the file you'll end up with a lot of whitespace. Note that if you want to use cut on a file where the delimiter is something other than a tab, you'll need to use the -d option. For example, on a CSV file use

$ cut -d , -f 1,2,3 myfile.txt

Sorting tabular data

The sort command, by default, sorts alphabetically on entire lines, so if we use it without any options it will effectively sort on the query name (if our BLAST report contains multiple queries) and then on the hit name (since that is the second field):

$ sort blast_example_nocomments.txt
my_protein    gi|109110319|ref|XP_001088270.1|;gi|544492470|ref|XP_005580931.1|;gi|685591740|ref|XP_009186406.1|    98.33    99.33    599    10    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1227
my_protein    gi|109110321|ref|XP_001088157.1|    98.32    99.33    596    10    0    4    599    37    632    0.0     1222
my_protein    gi|130485856|ref|NP_001076150.1|;gi|75039091|sp|O97554.1|PGH1_RABIT;gi|4103591|gb|AAD01796.1|    91.49    95.83    576    49    0    24    599    31    606    0.0     1121
my_protein    gi|14278642|pdb|1HT5|A;gi|14278643|pdb|1HT5|B;gi|14278644|pdb|1HT8|A;gi|14278645|pdb|1HT8|B    93.83    97.10    551    34    0    32    582    1    551    0.0     1093
my_protein    gi|157835592|pdb|2OYE|P;gi|157835593|pdb|2OYU|P    92.57    95.85    579    43    0    21    599    22    600    0.0     1130
....
my_protein    gi|76885914|gb|ABA60098.1|    99.83    99.83    596    1    0    4    599    35    630    0.0     1233
my_protein    gi|76885916|gb|ABA60099.1|    99.83    99.83    596    1    0    4    599    35    630    0.0     1234
my_protein    gi|999675|pdb|1PRH|A;gi|999676|pdb|1PRH|B    93.48    96.92    552    36    0    32    583    1    552    0.0     1091

For our example file, where the hit names begin with GI numbers, this effectively sorts by GI number (though notice that the sorting is not numerical: 76885916 comes before 999675 because it starts with a lower digit, even though it's a higher number).

We can get much more use out of sort if we specify the field we want to sort on. To do this we use the -k option (short for key) and give two numbers (separated by a comma) which are the first and last fields to sort on. This looks a bit weird since most of the time we want to sort on just a single field, so the first and last fields are the same. Here's how we sort by percent identity:

$ sort -k3,3  blast_example_nocomments.txt
my_protein    gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1|    100.00    100.00    599    0    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1243
my_protein    gi|507558178|ref|XP_004662827.1|    90.62    94.79    576    54    0    24    599    25    600    0.0     1103
my_protein    gi|507558180|ref|XP_004662828.1|    90.62    94.79    576    54    0    24    599    25    600    0.0     1103
my_protein    gi|507558182|ref|XP_004662829.1|    90.62    94.79    576    54    0    24    599    24    599    0.0     1102
my_protein    gi|586470237|ref|XP_006865713.1|    90.62    96.01    576    54    0    24    599    25    600    0.0     1094
...
my_protein    gi|674214810|gb|AIK97765.1|    99.83    99.83    599    1    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1239
my_protein    gi|76885914|gb|ABA60098.1|    99.83    99.83    596    1    0    4    599    35    630    0.0     1233
my_protein    gi|76885916|gb|ABA60099.1|    99.83    99.83    596    1    0    4    599    35    630    0.0     1234

Percent identity is the third field, so the first and last fields to sort on are both three. Looking closely at the output above reveals something odd: the first line, where the percent identity is 100, should be last, but instead it is first. The reason for this is that we're still sorting alphabetically, so 100 comes before 99 because it starts with a 1. To switch to numerical sorting, we use the -n option:

$ sort -k3,3  -n blast_example_nocomments.txt
my_protein    gi|507558178|ref|XP_004662827.1|    90.62    94.79    576    54    0    24    599    25    600    0.0     1103
my_protein    gi|507558180|ref|XP_004662828.1|    90.62    94.79    576    54    0    24    599    25    600    0.0     1103
my_protein    gi|507558182|ref|XP_004662829.1|    90.62    94.79    576    54    0    24    599    24    599    0.0     1102
...
my_protein    gi|76885914|gb|ABA60098.1|    99.83    99.83    596    1    0    4    599    35    630    0.0     1233
my_protein    gi|76885916|gb|ABA60099.1|    99.83    99.83    596    1    0    4    599    35    630    0.0     1234
my_protein    gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1|    100.00    100.00    599    0    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1243

and the hit with 100% identity moves to its correct place at the end of the output. If we want to see the highest identity first – i.e. to reverse the sorting order – we can just use the -r option:

$ sort -k3,3  -n -r blast_example_nocomments.txt
my_protein    gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1|    100.00    100.00    599    0    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1243
my_protein    gi|76885916|gb|ABA60099.1|    99.83    99.83    596    1    0    4    599    35    630    0.0     1234
my_protein    gi|76885914|gb|ABA60098.1|    99.83    99.83    596    1    0    4    599    35    630    0.0     1233
...
my_protein    gi|507558182|ref|XP_004662829.1|    90.62    94.79    576    54    0    24    599    24    599    0.0     1102
my_protein    gi|507558180|ref|XP_004662828.1|    90.62    94.79    576    54    0    24    599    25    600    0.0     1103
my_protein    gi|507558178|ref|XP_004662827.1|    90.62    94.79    576    54    0    24    599    25    600    0.0     1103

If we want to sort on multiple fields we can use multiple -k options. For example, here's how we sort by percent identity (field number three) then by hit length (field number five):

$ sort -k3,3  -k5,5 -n -r blast_example_nocomments.txt

Often when we sort BLAST hits by some criterion we're interested in the first or last hits. For example, we might only want to see the five longest hits. To do this, we can take the output of sort and pipe it directly into head. The head command displays just the few lines of its input – by default, the first ten lines, though we can specify a different number with the -n option. Here's how we extract the five longest hits from our BLAST report – we sort by hit length (the fifth field) in reverse order then pipe the results into head and extract the first 5 lines:

$ sort -k5,5 -n -r blast_example_nocomments.txt | head -n 5
my_protein    gi|724957135|ref|XP_010353695.1|    98.33    98.83    599    10    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1224
my_protein    gi|694936914|ref|XP_009455498.1|    99.33    100.00    599    4    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1239
my_protein    gi|674214810|gb|AIK97765.1|            99.83    99.83    599    1    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1239
my_protein    gi|635071455|ref|XP_007966350.1|    98.33    99.33    599    10    0    1    599    60    658    0.0     1225
my_protein    gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1|           100.00    100.00    599    0    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1243

If we combine this with the cut command that we discussed earlier, we can do more sophisticated things. For example, we can look at just the hit names and bitscores for the five longest hits by piping the results of the above command into cut and extracting the second and thirteenth fields:

$ sort -k5,5 -n -r blast_example_nocomments.txt | head -n 5 | cut -f 2,13
gi|724957135|ref|XP_010353695.1|     1224
gi|694936914|ref|XP_009455498.1|     1239
gi|674214810|gb|AIK97765.1|             1239
gi|635071455|ref|XP_007966350.1|     1225
gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1|             1243

This is an interesting example because the field that we're using for sorting – the hit length – doesn't form part of the final output. Because of this, we have to be careful with the order of commands – the sort has to come before the cut. If we try and do it the other way round:

$ cut -f 2,13 | sort -k5,5 -n -r blast_example_nocomments.txt | head -n 5

it won't work, because by the time sort sees the data the hit length field is no longer there – it's been removed by cut.

Filtering with awk

The last example we saw involved grabbing the five longest hits; what if, instead, we wanted to grab all the hits that were longer than a given length? We can't use the sort/head approach outlined above, because we don't know in advance how many lines we want to display. Instead, we need a tool that's capable of filtering lines based on specific criteria, and the one we're going to use is called awk. The awk command is a very flexible tool for text manipulation and can do lots of things; here we're only going to use a tiny bit of its capability. To use awk for filtering, we run it with a command string that describes the criterion which lines must pass. Inside this string, we can use $1 to refer to the first field, $2 to refer to the second, and so on. We can also use mathematical comparisons like equals and less-than. A few examples will make it clearer – here's how we display just the hits that are longer than 590 bases (i.e. just the lines where the fifth field is greater than 590):

$ awk '$5 > 590' blast_example_nocomments.txt
my_protein    gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1|    100.00    100.00    599    0    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1243
my_protein    gi|397526517|ref|XP_003833169.1|    99.50    100.00    599    3    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1240
my_protein    gi|18104967|ref|NP_000953.2|;gi|317373262|sp|P23219.2|PGH1_HUMAN    99.83    99.83    599    1    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1240
my_protein    gi|674214810|gb|AIK97765.1|    99.83    99.83    599    1    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1239
my_protein    gi|694936914|ref|XP_009455498.1|    99.33    100.00    599    4    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1239
my_protein    gi|387018|gb|AAA36439.1|    99.50    99.50    599    3    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1236
my_protein    gi|76885916|gb|ABA60099.1|    99.83    99.83    596    1    0    4    599    35    630    0.0     1234
my_protein    gi|76885914|gb|ABA60098.1|    99.83    99.83    596    1    0    4    599    35    630    0.0     1233
my_protein    gi|109110319|ref|XP_001088270.1|;gi|544492470|ref|XP_005580931.1|;gi|685591740|ref|XP_009186406.1|    98.33    99.33    599    10    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1227
my_protein    gi|635071455|ref|XP_007966350.1|    98.33    99.33    599    10    0    1    599    60    658    0.0     1225
my_protein    gi|724957135|ref|XP_010353695.1|    98.33    98.83    599    10    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1224
my_protein    gi|109110321|ref|XP_001088157.1|    98.32    99.33    596    10    0    4    599    37    632    0.0     1222
my_protein    gi|544492468|ref|XP_005580930.1|;gi|355567462|gb|EHH23803.1|;gi|355753051|gb|EHH57097.1|    98.32    99.33    596    10    0    4    599    37    632    0.0     1221
my_protein    gi|403266039|ref|XP_003925205.1|    97.16    98.50    599    17    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1209
my_protein    gi|667269156|ref|XP_008570258.1|    92.80    95.98    597    43    0    3    599    35    631    0.0     1123
my_protein    gi|470608129|ref|XP_004314816.1|    90.95    94.81    597    54    0    3    599    4    600    0.0     1122
my_protein    gi|403310639|ref|NP_001258093.1|    91.82    91.82    599    1    1    1    599    1    551    0.0     1115
my_protein    gi|194033503|ref|XP_001926164.1|    91.12    95.48    597    53    0    3    599    4    600    0.0     1102

Here's how we display just the hits that include the very start of the query sequence (i.e. the lines where the eighth field is equal to one):

$ awk '$8 == 1' blast_example_nocomments.txt
my_protein    gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1|    100.00    100.00    599    0    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1243
my_protein    gi|397526517|ref|XP_003833169.1|    99.50    100.00    599    3    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1240
my_protein    gi|18104967|ref|NP_000953.2|;gi|317373262|sp|P23219.2|PGH1_HUMAN    99.83    99.83    599    1    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1240
my_protein    gi|674214810|gb|AIK97765.1|    99.83    99.83    599    1    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1239
my_protein    gi|694936914|ref|XP_009455498.1|    99.33    100.00    599    4    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1239
my_protein    gi|387018|gb|AAA36439.1|    99.50    99.50    599    3    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1236
my_protein    gi|109110319|ref|XP_001088270.1|;gi|544492470|ref|XP_005580931.1|;gi|685591740|ref|XP_009186406.1|    98.33    99.33    599    10    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1227
my_protein    gi|635071455|ref|XP_007966350.1|    98.33    99.33    599    10    0    1    599    60    658    0.0     1225
my_protein    gi|724957135|ref|XP_010353695.1|    98.33    98.83    599    10    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1224
my_protein    gi|403266039|ref|XP_003925205.1|    97.16    98.50    599    17    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1209
my_protein    gi|403310639|ref|NP_001258093.1|    91.82    91.82    599    1    1    1    599    1    551    0.0     1115

Here's how we display just the hits with fewer than four missmatches (i.e. the lines where the sixth field is less than four):

$ awk '$6 < 4' blast_example_nocomments.txt
my_protein    gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1|    100.00    100.00    599    0    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1243
my_protein    gi|397526517|ref|XP_003833169.1|    99.50    100.00    599    3    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1240
my_protein    gi|18104967|ref|NP_000953.2|;gi|317373262|sp|P23219.2|PGH1_HUMAN    99.83    99.83    599    1    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1240
my_protein    gi|674214810|gb|AIK97765.1|    99.83    99.83    599    1    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1239
my_protein    gi|387018|gb|AAA36439.1|    99.50    99.50    599    3    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1236
my_protein    gi|76885916|gb|ABA60099.1|    99.83    99.83    596    1    0    4    599    35    630    0.0     1234
my_protein    gi|76885914|gb|ABA60098.1|    99.83    99.83    596    1    0    4    599    35    630    0.0     1233
my_protein    gi|530391358|ref|XP_005252162.1|    99.47    99.65    571    3    0    29    599    4    574    0.0     1186
my_protein    gi|403310639|ref|NP_001258093.1|    91.82    91.82    599    1    1    1    599    1    551    0.0     1115

You get the idea. We can combine multiple criteria with && – here's how we display just the hits with fewer than four miss-matches whose length is less than 599 bases:

$ awk '$6 < 4 && $5 < 599' blast_example_nocomments.txt
my_protein    gi|76885916|gb|ABA60099.1|    99.83    99.83    596    1    0    4    599    35    630    0.0     1234
my_protein    gi|76885914|gb|ABA60098.1|    99.83    99.83    596    1    0    4    599    35    630    0.0     1233
my_protein    gi|530391358|ref|XP_005252162.1|    99.47    99.65    571    3    0    29    599    4    574    0.0     1186

Unsurprisingly, combining awk with the other tools allows us to ask even more specific questions. For example, what are the bitscores (field number 13) of the hits with at least 99% identical positions (field number 3)? To get the answer, we filter the lines using awk then pipe the output to cut to extract just the fields we want:

$ awk '$3 >= 99' blast_example_nocomments.txt | cut -f 13
 1243
 1240
 1240
 1239
 1239
 1236
 1234
 1233
 1186

Summarizing output

All of the examples we've seen so far result in multiple lines of output, but sometimes we want to summarize the output. Consider a variation on the example above: how many hits have at least 99% identical bases? We know how to use awk to filter out just the hits that satisfy the criterion, so all we need to do is count the number of lines of output we get. The wc tool (the name is short for word count) will do this if we use the -l (for lines) option:

$ awk '$3 >= 99' blast_example_nocomments.txt | wc -l
9

So that rather than getting back a list, we now get back a single number. Another way to summarize output is to take the average of a list of numbers – for example, what's the average bitscore of all hits with at least 99% identity? A combination of awk and cut will give us the bitscores:

$ awk '$3 >= 99' blast_example_nocomments.txt | cut -f 13
 1243
 1240
 1240
 1239
 1239
 1236
 1234
 1233
 1186

and in fact, awk is also capable of calculating the mean average. The command that does so is '{a+=$13} END{print a/NR}', which roughly translates as "for each line, add the thirteenth field to a variable called a, then at the end of the file divide a by the number of lines and print it". Any further explanation of this command string would require a massive diversion into the syntax of awk, so we'll just treat it as a magic string for now and look at how it's used:

$ awk '$3 >= 99' blast_example_nocomments.txt | awk '{a+=$13} END{print a/NR}'
1232.22

To calculate the average for a different field, we just replace $13 with something else. Notice that in the above example we're using awk twice: once to filter out the lines and once to calculate the average. We could do the whole thing in a single awk command:

$ awk '$3 >= 99  {a+=$13;b+=1} END{print a/b}' blast_example_nocomments.txt
1232.22

but it's harder to read and would take even more space to explain.

An interesting feature of BLAST reports is that we can (depending on the settings) potentially have multiple hits to a single subject sequence, which will show up as multiple lines with identical second columns. To turn a list with duplicates into a unique list, we use the uniq command. For example, to get a list of all unique subject sequence names:

$ cut -f 2 blast_example_nocomments.txt | uniq 
gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1|
gi|397526517|ref|XP_003833169.1|
gi|18104967|ref|NP_000953.2|;gi|317373262|sp|P23219.2|PGH1_HUMAN
gi|674214810|gb|AIK97765.1|
...
gi|14278642|pdb|1HT5|A;gi|14278643|pdb|1HT5|B;gi|14278644|pdb|1HT8|A;gi|14278645|pdb|1HT8|B
gi|999675|pdb|1PRH|A;gi|999676|pdb|1PRH|B
gi|507932370|ref|XP_004677426.1|
gi|7245654|pdb|1EBV|A

If we compare the number of lines with and without uniq, we can get see how many subject names are duplicates:

$ cut -f 2 blast_example_nocomments.txt | wc -l
102
$ cut -f 2 blast_example_nocomments.txt | uniq | wc -l
98

In this case we get 102 lines but only 98 unique lines, so we know that 4 are duplicated. But we have no way of knowing how the duplicates are distributed; do we have a single subject sequence with five hits (resulting in four duplicates) or four subject sequences each with two hits (also resulting in four duplicates)? To find out, we can add the -c option to uniq, which will prefix each line with the number of times it occurs:

$ cut -f 2 blast_example_nocomments.txt | uniq -c
      3 gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1|
      1 gi|397526517|ref|XP_003833169.1|
      1 gi|18104967|ref|NP_000953.2|;gi|317373262|sp|P23219.2|PGH1_HUMAN
      2 gi|674214810|gb|AIK97765.1|
      1 gi|694936914|ref|XP_009455498.1|
      ...
      1 gi|471370351|ref|XP_004375688.1|
      2 gi|545512378|ref|XP_005625066.1|
      ...
      1 gi|507932370|ref|XP_004677426.1|
      1 gi|7245654|pdb|1EBV|A

An important limitation of uniq is that it only identifies duplicated lines that are adjacent in the file. This is fine in the case of subject sequence names, because BLAST groups multiple hits to the same sequence together, but if we try the same trick with a field where duplicated values are spread throughout the file it won't work. For example, we might want to see how many hits there are of each length (remember, alignment length is the fifth field), but if we try doing this:

$ cut -f 5 blast_example_nocomments.txt | uniq -c
      1 599
      2 123
      3 599
      1 123
      2 599
      ...

we can see that the lines containing 599 have not been correctly grouped together because they are not adjacent. To make this command work we need to sort the alignment lengths numerically before passing them to uniq:

$ cut -f 5 blast_example_nocomments.txt | sort -n | uniq -c
      3 123
      1 309
      2 551
      1 552
      2 553
      1 567
     12 568
      1 569
      2 570
      3 571
      1 573
      5 574
      1 575
     35 576
      9 579
      1 580
      4 582
      4 596
      3 597
     11 599

Sorting the lengths in this way not only gives us the correct counts, but also makes it easier to interpret the results.

Editing fields

In the last section of this tutorial we'll look at a few different ways that we can make changes to the fields in a tabular data file. Let's start with our old friend awk; we already know that inside an awk command we can use $3, for example, to get the value of the third field. We can also use the same notation to set the value of the third field – say, to a specific number:

$ awk '$3=123456789' blast_example_nocomments.txt 
my_protein gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1| 123456789 100.00 599 0 0 1 599 1 599 0.0 1243
my_protein gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1| 123456789 100.00 123 0 0 1 599 602 866 0.0 1243
my_protein gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1| 123456789 100.00 123 0 0 1 599 702 904 0.0 1243
my_protein gi|397526517|ref|XP_003833169.1| 123456789 100.00 599 3 0 1 599 1 599 0.0 1240
...

This by itself is not very useful – let's look at a more realistic example. Imagine that we want to express the proportion of identical bases for each hit as a decimal fraction rather than as a percentage. To accomplish this, we use the awk command '$3=$3/100' i.e. "set the new value of the third field to be the current value of the third field divided by one hundred":

$ awk '$3=$3/100' blast_example_nocomments.txt 
my_protein gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1| 1 100.00 599 0 0 1 599 1 599 0.0 1243
my_protein gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1| 1 100.00 123 0 0 1 599 602 866 0.0 1243
my_protein gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1| 1 100.00 123 0 0 1 599 702 904 0.0 1243
my_protein gi|397526517|ref|XP_003833169.1| 0.995 100.00 599 3 0 1 599 1 599 0.0 1240
my_protein gi|18104967|ref|NP_000953.2|;gi|317373262|sp|P23219.2|PGH1_HUMAN 0.9983 99.83 599 1 0 1 599 1 599 0.0 1240
my_protein gi|674214810|gb|AIK97765.1| 0.9983 99.83 599 1 0 1 599 1 599 0.0 1239
my_protein gi|674214810|gb|AIK97765.1| 0.9983 99.83 123 1 0 1 599 600 700 0.0 1239
my_protein gi|694936914|ref|XP_009455498.1| 0.9933 100.00 599 4 0 1 599 1 599 0.0 1239
my_protein gi|387018|gb|AAA36439.1| 0.995 99.50 599 3 0 1 599 1 599 0.0 1236
...

You'll notice that in the output shown above, awk has separated each field with a space rather than a tab as they were originally. Depending on what we want to do with the data at this point, this may not be a problem, but if we want to get the original tab separator back we just have to set the -OFS (short for Output Field Separator) option to the tab character, which we represent as 't':

$ awk  '$3=$3/100' OFS='t' blast_example_nocomments.txt 
my_protein    gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1|    1    100.00    599    0    0    1    599    1    599    0.0    1243
my_protein    gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1|    1    100.00    123    0    0    1    599    602    866    0.0    1243
my_protein    gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1|    1    100.00    123    0    0    1    599    702    904    0.0    1243
my_protein    gi|397526517|ref|XP_003833169.1|    0.995    100.00    599    3    0    1    599    1    599    0.0    1240
my_protein    gi|18104967|ref|NP_000953.2|;gi|317373262|sp|P23219.2|PGH1_HUMAN    0.9983    99.83    599    1    0    1    599    1    599    0.0    1240
my_protein    gi|674214810|gb|AIK97765.1|    0.9983    99.83    599    1    0    1    599    1    599    0.0    1239
my_protein    gi|674214810|gb|AIK97765.1|    0.9983    99.83    123    1    0    1    599    600    700    0.0    1239
...

If we want to make multiple edits to each line, we simply separate them with a comma. Imagine that we have want to take our list of hits to a protein sequence and translate the start/stop positions to the corresponding DNA sequence by multiplying them both by three. Here's how we do it (remember that the query start and stop are fields number 8 and 9):

$ awk  '$8=$8*3,$9=$9*3' OFS='t' blast_example_nocomments.txt 
my_protein    gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1|    100.00    100.00    599    0    0    3    1797    1    599    0.0    1243
my_protein    gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1|    100.00    100.00    123    0    0    3    1797    602    866    0.0    1243
my_protein    gi|60654447|gb|AAX29914.1|    100.00    100.00    123    0    0    3    1797    702    904    0.0    1243
my_protein    gi|397526517|ref|XP_003833169.1|    99.50    100.00    599    3    0    3    1797    1    599    0.0    1240
...

Notice that the command for multiplication is an asterisk (*), not an x.

Finally, what if we want to alter just a part of a field, rather than the whole field? For example, all those bar characters (|) in the subject hit names make them difficult to read, so we might want to change them to spaces. We could do this job with awk, but the sed tool is a bit easier to use in this case. When using sed to replace one character with another, we give it a command string that looks like this: 's/X/Y/g', where X is the character we want to change and Y is the replacement. In our example, we want to change all bar characters to spaces:

$ sed 's/|/ /g' blast_example_nocomments.txt

my_protein    gi 60654447 gb AAX29914.1     100.00    100.00    599    0    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1243
my_protein    gi 60654447 gb AAX29914.1     100.00    100.00    123    0    0    1    599    602    866    0.0     1243
my_protein    gi 60654447 gb AAX29914.1     100.00    100.00    123    0    0    1    599    702    904    0.0     1243
my_protein    gi 397526517 ref XP_003833169.1     99.50    100.00    599    3    0    1    599    1    599    0.0     1240

It's important to note that these last few examples of editing fields do not alter the original file – if we want to save the ouput then we need to redirect it to a new file.

Doing more complicated things

The examples in this tutorial just give a very brief overview of the capabilities of command-line tools to deal with tabular data. Each of the tools mentioned here – especially sed and awk – have many more options and are capable of doing much more complicated jobs. However, as command-lines and scripts get larger, they become harder to edit and maintain.

For any job involving tabular data that's more complex than the examples outlined above, it's probably best to switch to a "real" programming language. Head over to the books page, or take a look at the tutorial.