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This article is part of the supplement: Computational Intelligence in Bioinformatics and Biostatistics: new trends from the CIBB conference series

Open Access Research

Visualization of protein interaction networks: problems and solutions

Giuseppe Agapito1, Pietro Hiram Guzzi1 and Mario Cannataro12*

Author affiliations

1 Department of Medical and Surgical Sciences, Magna Graecia University of Catanzaro, Italy

2 ICAR-CNR, Rende, Italy

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Citation and License

BMC Bioinformatics 2013, 14(Suppl 1):S1  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-14-S1-S1

Published: 14 January 2013



Visualization concerns the representation of data visually and is an important task in scientific research. Protein-protein interactions (PPI) are discovered using either wet lab techniques, such mass spectrometry, or in silico predictions tools, resulting in large collections of interactions stored in specialized databases. The set of all interactions of an organism forms a protein-protein interaction network (PIN) and is an important tool for studying the behaviour of the cell machinery. Since graphic representation of PINs may highlight important substructures, e.g. protein complexes, visualization is more and more used to study the underlying graph structure of PINs. Although graphs are well known data structures, there are different open problems regarding PINs visualization: the high number of nodes and connections, the heterogeneity of nodes (proteins) and edges (interactions), the possibility to annotate proteins and interactions with biological information extracted by ontologies (e.g. Gene Ontology) that enriches the PINs with semantic information, but complicates their visualization.


In these last years many software tools for the visualization of PINs have been developed. Initially thought for visualization only, some of them have been successively enriched with new functions for PPI data management and PIN analysis. The paper analyzes the main software tools for PINs visualization considering four main criteria: (i) technology, i.e. availability/license of the software and supported OS (Operating System) platforms; (ii) interoperability, i.e. ability to import/export networks in various formats, ability to export data in a graphic format, extensibility of the system, e.g. through plug-ins; (iii) visualization, i.e. supported layout and rendering algorithms and availability of parallel implementation; (iv) analysis, i.e. availability of network analysis functions, such as clustering or mining of the graph, and the possibility to interact with external databases.


Currently, many tools are available and it is not easy for the users choosing one of them. Some tools offer sophisticated 2D and 3D network visualization making available many layout algorithms, others tools are more data-oriented and support integration of interaction data coming from different sources and data annotation. Finally, some specialistic tools are dedicated to the analysis of pathways and cellular processes and are oriented toward systems biology studies, where the dynamic aspects of the processes being studied are central.


A current trend is the deployment of open, extensible visualization tools (e.g. Cytoscape), that may be incrementally enriched by the interactomics community with novel and more powerful functions for PIN analysis, through the development of plug-ins. On the other hand, another emerging trend regards the efficient and parallel implementation of the visualization engine that may provide high interactivity and near real-time response time, as in NAViGaTOR. From a technological point of view, open-source, free and extensible tools, like Cytoscape, guarantee a long term sustainability due to the largeness of the developers and users communities, and provide a great flexibility since new functions are continuously added by the developer community through new plug-ins, but the emerging parallel, often closed-source tools like NAViGaTOR, can offer near real-time response time also in the analysis of very huge PINs.