Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

N-gram analysis of 970 microbial organisms reveals presence of biological language models

Hatice Ulku Osmanbeyoglu and Madhavi K Ganapathiraju*

Author Affiliations

Department of Biomedical Informatics, University of Pittsburgh, 5150 Center Ave, Suite 301, Pittsburgh, PA, 15232, USA

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Bioinformatics 2011, 12:12  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-12-12

Published: 10 January 2011



It has been suggested previously that genome and proteome sequences show characteristics typical of natural-language texts such as "signature-style" word usage indicative of authors or topics, and that the algorithms originally developed for natural language processing may therefore be applied to genome sequences to draw biologically relevant conclusions. Following this approach of 'biological language modeling', statistical n-gram analysis has been applied for comparative analysis of whole proteome sequences of 44 organisms. It has been shown that a few particular amino acid n-grams are found in abundance in one organism but occurring very rarely in other organisms, thereby serving as genome signatures. At that time proteomes of only 44 organisms were available, thereby limiting the generalization of this hypothesis. Today nearly 1,000 genome sequences and corresponding translated sequences are available, making it feasible to test the existence of biological language models over the evolutionary tree.


We studied whole proteome sequences of 970 microbial organisms using n-gram frequencies and cross-perplexity employing the Biological Language Modeling Toolkit and Patternix Revelio toolkit. Genus-specific signatures were observed even in a simple unigram distribution. By taking statistical n-gram model of one organism as reference and computing cross-perplexity of all other microbial proteomes with it, cross-perplexity was found to be predictive of branch distance of the phylogenetic tree. For example, a 4-gram model from proteome of Shigellae flexneri 2a, which belongs to the Gammaproteobacteria class showed a self-perplexity of 15.34 while the cross-perplexity of other organisms was in the range of 15.59 to 29.5 and was proportional to their branching distance in the evolutionary tree from S. flexneri. The organisms of this genus, which happen to be pathotypes of E.coli, also have the closest perplexity values with E. coli.


Whole proteome sequences of microbial organisms have been shown to contain particular n-gram sequences in abundance in one organism but occurring very rarely in other organisms, thereby serving as proteome signatures. Further it has also been shown that perplexity, a statistical measure of similarity of n-gram composition, can be used to predict evolutionary distance within a genus in the phylogenetic tree.