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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
 
Anal Chem. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2010 December 1.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC2787672
NIHMSID: NIHMS153687

Software Tool for Researching Annotations of Proteins (STRAP): Open-Source Protein Annotation Software with Data Visualization

Abstract

In order that biological meaning may be derived and testable hypotheses may be built from proteomics experiments, assignments of proteins identified by mass spectrometry or other techniques must be supplemented with additional notation, such as information on known protein functions, protein-protein interactions, or biological pathway associations. Collecting, organizing, and interpreting this data often requires the input of experts in the biological field of study, in addition to the time-consuming search for and compilation of information from online protein databases. Furthermore, visualizing this bulk of information can be challenging due to the limited availability of easy-to-use and freely available tools for this process. In response to these constraints, we have undertaken the design of software to automate annotation and visualization of proteomics data in order to accelerate the pace of research. Here we present the Software Tool for Researching Annotations of Proteins (STRAP) – a user-friendly, open-source C# application. STRAP automatically obtains gene ontology (GO) terms associated with proteins in a proteomics results ID list using the freely accessible UniProtKB and EBI GOA databases. Summarized in an easy-to-navigate tabular format, STRAP includes meta-information on the protein in addition to complimentary GO terminology. Additionally, this information can be edited by the user so that in-house expertise on particular proteins may be integrated into the larger dataset. STRAP provides a sortable tabular view for all terms, as well as graphical representations of GO-term association data in pie (biological process, cellular component and molecular function) and bar charts (cross comparison of sample sets) to aid in the interpretation of large datasets and differential analyses experiments. Furthermore, proteins of interest may be exported as a unique FASTA-formatted file to allow for customizable re-searching of mass spectrometry data, and gene names corresponding to the proteins in the lists may be encoded in the Gaggle microformat for further characterization, including pathway analysis. STRAP, a tutorial, and the C# source code are freely available from http://cpctools.sourceforge.net.

Keywords: proteomics, annotation, software, mass spectrometry, data analysis

INTRODUCTION

Most mass spectrometry based proteomics experiments are designed to address the question, “what are the differences between the observed sets of expressed proteins in normal versus diseased or modified states?” Typically, proteins are isolated from cells, tissues or biological fluids obtained from host organisms experiencing a challenged state relative to a control. These proteins are then identified and characterized by analytical techniques such as mass spectrometry. The results often yield lengthy lists of differentially expressed proteins, with tens to thousands of entries. Deriving meaning from these lists of proteins is quite challenging but necessary if biological conclusions are to be drawn from the experiment. Interpretation of this data begins with annotation of the protein lists with information such as known protein function, followed by analyses of whether these attributes display meaningful trends. In order to obtain these protein annotations, knowledge must be gleaned either from experts in the field, through an exhaustive search of the literature, or through the consultation of online protein databases. Accomplishing this process manually is extremely laborious and scales in time and effort linearly with the size of the protein lists such that it is feasible with only the smallest of datasets. Clearly, there is a widespread and growing need for software to facilitate this process.

To address these requirements, a number of genomics and proteomics software applications have been proposed with varying degrees of utility and success. While not all-inclusive, examples of gene-based and GO-related software may be readily found within the tools section of the Gene Ontology website (www.geneontology.org)1; and mass spectrometry and proteomics based tools may be found at ProteomeCommons (proteomecommons.org/tools-browse.jsp)2. One goal of such software is to retrieve and collate information from online databases and to provide a straightforward way to interpret proteomics data. For functional annotation, the most mature and widely used online repository is the Gene Ontology database, the product of a project to establish a standardized language and hierarchical framework for gene and gene-product annotation. In the field of proteomics, many protein information repositories have utilized the GO annotation nomenclature, including the highly annotated and curated UniProtKB protein knowledgebase (www.uniprot.org)3, an online repository of protein sequence, annotation and functional information.

Specific software tools have been created for the purpose of functionally annotating gene and gene product lists. Among the commercial packages, the most popular for proteomics annotation are ProteinCenter, available from Proxeon (www.proxeon.com), and Scaffold, from Proteome Software (www.proteomesoftware.com). These commercial packages are, unfortunately, relatively costly and this property limits their adoption, particularly by academic laboratories. Meanwhile, there are examples of free tools which are capable of browsing/parsing or annotating entire protein lists at once, such as g:Profiler4, PANDORA5, and DAS6. Their annotation lists, however, are general and lack the granularity required to show detailed trends within or between protein lists. Recently released by the Institute for Systems Biology, PIPE: Protein Information Property Explorer7, and another recently developed server based application, PIKE: Protein Information and Knowledge Extractor (proteo.cnb.uam.es:8080/pike)8 have more extensive and comprehensive protein list annotation capabilities. Nevertheless, the complicated organization of GO terms in Scaffold, ProteinCenter, PIPE, and PIKE makes it difficult to quickly interpret the biological meaning of a protein set or a comparative proteomics data set. Additionally, none of these programs allow the user to manually edit GO annotations within a dataset. This is critical as the extent and validity of GO annotations are currently limited. Furthermore, a main focus of proteomics experiments is to investigate the differential expression of proteins between pairs or among groups of samples. For this reason, it is important for any protein annotation software to have capabilities to compare protein sets. Scaffold is restricted to tabular protein set comparison, while PEAK and PIPE lack such abilities altogether. Although ProteinCenter does have extensive data set comparison capabilities, it requires the user to upload complete datasets to the ProteinCenter server as part of its web-based subscription package. This loss of control over valuable proprietary data may discourage some users.

While there is no question as to the utility of existing tools, there is no single tool that is open-source and easy to use, yet capable of automatically annotating large protein lists and visually rendering the annotations such that large scale proteomics data sets can be compared. STRAP was designed to meet this specific need while being the only freely available tool that runs locally on the user’s computer. It uses dedicated columns for GO terms, but the global presentation of the category names has been streamlined for ease of interpretation and manual GO term annotation.

EXPERIMENTAL

The Software Tool for Researching Annotations of Proteins (STRAP) was written in C# and was developed in the Visual C# 2008 environment. Additionally, it uses the open-source ZedGraph (zedgraph.org) and 3D Pie Chart (www.codeproject.com/KB/graphics/julijanpiechart.aspx) libraries to create charts. STRAP was designed to be intuitive and easy to implement in a common PC-based laboratory such that users would be comfortable using STRAP. Although Windows-based machines are ubiquitous in the proteomics world, STRAP may also be used on Apple computers with the use of Boot Camp (included with Mac OS) or virtualization software such as Sun VirtualBox (free) or Parallels Desktop (commercial). STRAP data can be exported to the Gaggle9 network for analysis with other tools provided that FireGoose (the Gaggle Toolbar for Firefox)10 is installed on the host PC. The STRAP installer, a tutorial and C# source code can be obtained directly from http://cpctools.sourceforge.net.

In order to demonstrate STRAP’s capabilities, we used data from a recent lymphoma biomarker study11. This example data set, which is included with the STRAP installer, is composed of three protein sets reflecting the differentially expressed proteomes of three B-cell proliferative states.

RESULTS

Overview of STRAP and Accepted File Formats

STRAP provides proteomics researchers with an easy way to obtain, group and compare protein annotations for lists of proteins. STRAP begins with the input of protein lists from a proteomics experiment. For example, such an experiment may begin with LC-MS/MS and end with a protein ID list following a standard database search using a search engine such as Mascot (www.matrixscience.com)12. For initial dissemination, we chose several input and output formats for STRAP which are summarized schematically in Figure 1. Input files for STRAP must contain protein entry or accession numbers in the UniProt Knowledgebase (www.uniprot.org) format (e.g., HBB_HUMAN, or P002833). These lists may be in any of three currently supported formats: plain text lists of proteins (ASCII format), Mascot database search results (.dat format), or protXML results (XML format) obtained from Protein Prophet13 using the Trans Proteomic Pipeline (TPP)14,15 (tools.proteomecenter.org/software.php). Mascot and TPP file formats were chosen because of their popularity in proteomics, but the text file format gives STRAP the flexibility to be integrated into alternative workflows. The Mascot .dat search results format contains identifiers through which protein accession numbers are retrieved by STRAP. ProtXML results obtained using the TPP tools are in an XML format defined by the Institute for Systems Biology (ISB) that is mined by STRAP for accession numbers. STRAP focuses on data obtained from the TPP because of its open-source, community-driven nature. Each protein hit in the TPP’s protXML file also has an associated probability which reflects the likelihood of valid protein assignment to the raw data. A STRAP user may choose to import only proteins above a given probability threshold. This probability cutoff acts as a filter to reduce the presence of low-scoring proteins and will allow for more accurate and manageable data sets.

Figure 1
Schematic representation of STRAP functionality, including data input and output. STRAP can read protein lists in UniProt entry or accession number format obtained from plain text files, as well as from Mascot and TPP ProteinProphet results files. STRAP ...

Following importing of protein identifications and subsequent annotations, the results may be saved as an annotated text file (.atxt) which contains all pertinent information regarding the dataset, or a FASTA formatted protein dataset containing the names and sequences of the identified proteins. The .atxt files may be reloaded into STRAP at any later time to reconstitute the project for further analysis without the need to download all of the protein annotations again while the FASTA dataset export may be used for subsequent searching via a database search algorithm when incorporating iterative search strategies. Additionally, gene names corresponding to the proteins in the lists may be encoded in the Gaggle microformat (gaggle.systemsbiology.org/docs) for use with more diverse data analysis and interpretation programs that are a part of the Gaggle9. The Gaggle microformat file may be submitted for analyses by other Gaggled programs (e.g., KEGG Pathway Search) via FireGoose10. We chose to integrate STRAP with Gaggled programs to increase the overall utility of STRAP and allow for incorporation within open-source proteomics workflows which make use of the TPP.

Annotations

STRAP parses protein annotation information from XML data in the online UniProtKB database. Because downloading annotations can take several minutes, depending on the size of a protein list, annotation is carried out in a multi-threaded fashion to allow a user to simultaneously continue using STRAP, and other programs, for other tasks. At the time of downloading a new protein list, the user may select the option to also import GO annotations from the EBI GOA database (http://www.ebi.ac.uk/GOA/)16. Downloaded annotation information is categorized into the following results: protein name, primary gene name, taxonomy, length, function, catalytic activity, and several gene ontology (GO) terms. A screenshot of the tabular results shown in STRAP is presented in Figure 2. Because GO terms are organized within nested hierarchies below the three major categories of Biological Process, Cellular Component, and Molecular Function, STRAP displays the GO term annotations on its main annotation table in columns corresponding to these three categories, each with a different representative symbol. Further organization of the GO terms into sub-categories is based on a simplified version of the categories originally published by the Gene Ontology Consortium, with major categories being taken from geneontology.org17.

Figure 2
GUI interface of STRAP showing the main protein annotation view. All columns in the main annotation table, including the GO category column allow sorting. This allows users to group proteins by any gene ontology. Annotation attributes can be edited to ...

The main GO term columns used are as shown in Table 1. A complete description of GO terms sub-category may be found in the Supplemental Table 1 (A–C) under the main category to which they belong. For simplicity, any GO column is made visible only if there is at least one protein in the list that has the corresponding GO term annotation. STRAP displays a simplified GO category list to improve viewing capabilities; however, the user may still view the original GO lineage of a protein’s GO terms via STRAP’s built-in Gene Ontology Term Browser (Figure 3). In addition to the full annotation display of GO term attributes obtained from the on-line database, users can manually edit these terms within STRAP as necessary if a user has additional expert information about the proteins of interest. Both inclusion into, and exclusion from, previously associated GO term categories can be specified for each protein entry. These results then may be stored in the STRAP atxt file.

Figure 3
STRAP’s built in Gene Ontology Term Browser. The browser presents all GO terms associated with a particular protein entry, as well as each GO term’s complete lineage. 82×28mm (300 × 300 DPI)
Table 1
STRAP categorization of gene ontology (GO) terms. The three major categories of GO terms are incorporated within strap as shown here. For the complete list of categories and subcategories, see Supplemental Table 1.

GO Annotation Visualization

There are currently two ways to visualize protein annotations in STRAP: pie charts and bar graphs. Selecting pie-chart rendering allows for display of each major category of GO term (biological process, cellular component, and molecular function) as shown in Figure 4. Each slice of the pie chart is labeled with the appropriate subcategory title, and the number of GO annotations that fall under this category. In addition to showing the number of GO annotations, a percentage value is listed to indicate the fraction of GO terms that is represented out of the complete list of GO annotations for the entire set of proteins. From the particular data set shown in figure 4, it appears that “Regulation” is a frequent annotation in common to many proteins in the current protein list. Based on the biological context of the data, this might be an interesting subset of proteins for further study.11

Figure 4
STRAP pie chart rendering. To graphically display the GO-term sub-categories for each data set, STRAP can generate pie charts for each of the three main GO categories, wherein each slice represents a sub-category. Each pie slice is labeled with the GO ...

Whereas pie charts provide visualization of single data sets that are easy to interpret on a per-sample or per-project bases, bar graphs may be rendered for ease of comparative analysis of multiple datasets. STRAP can render bar graphs on both single results sets and multiple sets of proteins and thus be used to qualitatively and semi-quantitatively interpret the biological significance of proteomics data. Comparison may be performed on any of the protein data sets’ GO terms, including the number of annotations for sub-categories within each top-level GO category. In the example shown here in Figure 5, a comparison is made across three complimentary proteomics data sets. This easily allows the visualization of global changes in protein functions across the data sets, and provides information for global data analysis and comparison and affords planning of future experiments. In this example, among the three data sets, “growth” is an annotation that is found more frequently in set 3 than the other sets, which may imply that growth-related proteins are up-regulated in set 3. 11 When there are too many data sets (e.g., more than 5) being compared, the user can elect to generate a comparison table in addition to a bar chart.

Figure 5
STRAP bar chart rendering for the comparison of multiple data sets. STRAP can generate bar charts allowing for comparison and visualization of large datasets based upon GO terms. This bar graph compares the amount of Biological Process GO term annotations ...

CONCLUSIONS

STRAP is user-friendly, open-source software that automates the protein annotation and GO-term visualization process that is otherwise extremely laborious when done manually. It can read protein lists from a variety of formats, including Mascot and TPP search results, and then annotate these lists using the online UniProtKB and the EBI GOA database. From an annotated list of proteins, it can generate various GO term graphs and charts to aid data interpretation and thus expedite proteomic data analysis. Furthermore, these graphs provide qualitative information that is instrumental to planning future experiments. This easy to use PC-based software allows researchers to rapidly parse and annotate large sets of proteins from a variety of sources. Additionally, it can export data to FASTA databases or to the large pool of Gaggle framework software for further data interrogation including pathway analysis.

While STRAP currently mines the UniProtKB and EBI GOA databases for annotation information, these databases do not contain an exhaustive list of proteins, and proteins that are in these databases are not always completely annotated. Fortunately, both databases are rapidly growing to encompass more complete annotations and additional protein entries. While we anticipate that future releases of STRAP will have the capability to automatically search databases other than the UniProtKB and EBI GOA, users can use the ID Mapping tool provided by UniProt (www.uniprot.org/?tab=mapping) for pre-analysis file conversion should they be interested in characterization of proteins obtained from other database driven proteomics experiments.

Because gene ontology annotation is still incomplete, it is useful to access gene ontology annotations from various sources. There are several applications in the public domain which focus on predicting gene ontology annotations: GoFigure18, Blast2GO19, GOanna20, and GeneTools17 predict GO terms with a homology search, and EBIMed21 predicts them using a literature-based search. We plan to integrate such GO term prediction as well as GO term enrichment and depletion calculation capabilities in a future release of STRAP. Furthermore, to meet the increasing focus on post-translational modifications (PTMs) in proteomics, future releases of STRAP will include the ability to visualize and compare the character and extent of PTMs across data sets in addition to simple protein comparisons. Finally, as the source code is readily available to the community, others may add their own functionality to STRAP as they see fit.

Supplementary Material

1_si_001

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

We thank all the members of the Center for Biomedical Mass Spectrometry for evaluating STRAP and providing feedback during the course of program development. This research was funded by NIH-NHLBI contract N01 HV28178 and NIH-NCRR grant P41 RR10888.

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