MetNetAPI: A flexible method to access and manipulate biological network data from MetNet
1 Department of Genetics, Development and Cell Biology, Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011, USA
2 Interdepartmental Program in Bioinformatics & Computational Biology, Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011, USA
BMC Research Notes 2010, 3:312 doi:10.1186/1756-0500-3-312Published: 18 November 2010
Convenient programmatic access to different biological databases allows automated integration of scientific knowledge. Many databases support a function to download files or data snapshots, or a webservice that offers "live" data. However, the functionality that a database offers cannot be represented in a static data download file, and webservices may consume considerable computational resources from the host server.
MetNetAPI is a versatile Application Programming Interface (API) to the MetNetDB database. It abstracts, captures and retains operations away from a biological network repository and website. A range of database functions, previously only available online, can be immediately (and independently from the website) applied to a dataset of interest. Data is available in four layers: molecular entities, localized entities (linked to a specific organelle), interactions, and pathways. Navigation between these layers is intuitive (e.g. one can request the molecular entities in a pathway, as well as request in what pathways a specific entity participates). Data retrieval can be customized: Network objects allow the construction of new and integration of existing pathways and interactions, which can be uploaded back to our server. In contrast to webservices, the computational demand on the host server is limited to processing data-related queries only.
An API provides several advantages to a systems biology software platform. MetNetAPI illustrates an interface with a central repository of data that represents the complex interrelationships of a metabolic and regulatory network. As an alternative to data-dumps and webservices, it allows access to a current and "live" database and exposes analytical functions to application developers. Yet it only requires limited resources on the server-side (thin server/fat client setup). The API is available for Java, Microsoft.NET and R programming environments and offers flexible query and broad data- retrieval methods. Data retrieval can be customized to client needs and the API offers a framework to construct and manipulate user-defined networks. The design principles can be used as a template to build programmable interfaces for other biological databases. The API software and tutorials are available at http://www.metnetonline.org/api webcite.