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Bioinformatics. 2012 Feb 15; 28(4): 464–469.
Published online 2011 Dec 22. doi:  10.1093/bioinformatics/btr703
PMCID: PMC3278759

Artemis: an integrated platform for visualization and analysis of high-throughput sequence-based experimental data


Motivation: High-throughput sequencing (HTS) technologies have made low-cost sequencing of large numbers of samples commonplace. An explosion in the type, not just number, of sequencing experiments has also taken place including genome re-sequencing, population-scale variation detection, whole transcriptome sequencing and genome-wide analysis of protein-bound nucleic acids.

Results: We present Artemis as a tool for integrated visualization and computational analysis of different types of HTS datasets in the context of a reference genome and its corresponding annotation.

Availability: Artemis is freely available (under a GPL licence) for download (for MacOSX, UNIX and Windows) at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute websites: http://www.sanger.ac.uk/resources/software/artemis/.

Contact: ku.ca.regnas@simetra; ku.ca.regnas@cjt


Prior to the advent of high-throughput sequencing (HTS), sequencing experiments were limited by cost to the study of a single sample or a small number of important samples. However, the recent advances in DNA sequencing technologies (Shendure et al., 2008) have made it possible for researchers to quickly and inexpensively sequence very large numbers of samples and to conduct many new types of sequencing-based experiments. For example, HTS has been used to study transmission using a large number of isolates of a methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) on both the global and local scale (Harris et al., 2010). It has also been used to show that homologous recombination has led to serotype switching and vaccine escape in a study of 240 isolates of Streptococcus pneumoniae PMEN1 (Croucher et al., 2011). HTS has made it possible to explore population genetic variation among human populations (1000 Genomes Project, Altshuler et al., 2010). We are now increasingly using it to enhance our understanding of how genetic differences affect health and disease (Metzker, 2010). The aim of projects, such as the UK10K (http://www.uk10k.org), is to construct detailed catalogues of genome variations and identify many more low-frequency variants that may be associated with susceptibility to disease and response to pathogens, drugs and vaccines. These applications of HTS require the identification of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) as well as insertions and deletions. In addition to indels, HTS can be used to identify large structural variants, such as large insertions, deletions, inversions and duplications. Structural variations are also likely to make an important contribution to diversity and disease susceptibility (Walters et al., 2010). The study of functional genomics and quantitative gene expression studies has greatly benefited from RNA-seq experiments, which have refined our understanding of expression and significantly improved annotation (Bruno, et al., 2010, Croucher and Thomson, 2010, Daines et al., 2011, Lu et al., 2010, Mortazavi et al., 2008).

The sheer size of the datasets from HTS experiments requires tools to visualize, analyse, summarize and interpret these large-scale datasets. Many new algorithms and tools have been developed to efficiently process and analyse the data such as those designed to assemble sequences into a consensus, e.g. Velvet (Zerbino and Birney, 2008), ABySS (Simpson et al., 2009), map or align short reads against a reference sequence e.g. TopHat (Trapnell et al., 2009), BowTie (Langmead et al., 2009), BWA (Li and Durbin, 2009) or those designed to identify sequence variations e.g. SAMtools, GATK (DePristo et al., 2011). However an inspection, review and interpretation of the output by an experienced and knowledgeable person is essential to understand the genomic context of these datasets and can be critical to make connections between sequence variation and biological phenomena. This of course complements computational approaches, because a visual examination of the results and underlying data is often the next step in order to confirm a prediction, or assess the potential functional effects in a sequence-based experiment.

A number of new software applications have been developed for browsing, visualizing and interpreting large-scale sequencing datasets. Several of these have been designed specifically for the visualization of genome sequence assemblies, including EagleView (Huang and Marth, 2008), HawkEye (Schatz et al., 2007) and Tablet (Milne et al., 2010). Other tools, such as LookSeq (Manske and Kwiatkowski, 2009) and BamView (Carver et al., 2010) have been developed specifically to visualize short-read alignment data. LookSeq is a JavaScript-based web application that displays data stored in BAM files. BamView is an interactive Java application that can visualize large numbers of read alignments stored in BAM files. However, often researchers need to visualize these read alignments in the context of genome annotation. Genome browsers including Integrative Genome Viewer (IGV, Robinson et al., 2011), Integrated Genome Browser (IGB, Nicol et al., 2009) and GenoViewer (http://www.genoviewer.com), have been developed for this purpose. MagicViewer (Hou et al., 2010) is also capable of displaying large-scale short-read alignments in the context of annotations. In addition, it provides a pipeline for genetic variation detection, filtration, annotation and visualization. Savant (Fiume et al., 2010) is a genome and annotation visualization and analysis tool.

Artemis is an established genome annotation tool (Rutherford et al., 2000) that has been used in many genome projects to produce and annotate bacterial e.g. Salmonella enterica (Parkhill et al., 2001), Burkholderia cenocepacia (Holden et al., 2009) and small and medium-sized eukaryote genomes e.g. Schistosoma mansoni, 360 Mb (Berriman et al., 2009), Plasmodium knowlesi, 23 MB (Pain et al., 2008), respectively. However, in the HTS era the focus is shifting away from producing reference genomes and annotation to re-sequencing of large populations and conducting new types of sequencing-based experiments. In this article, we show how we have extended the Artemis platform for the visualization, analysis, interpretation and inspection of HTS experimental datasets. Artemis has been further developed to make this data the central focus of the tool in the context of a reference genome. The goal for Artemis is to make it a platform that can be used to intuitively visualize, browse and interpret large datasets being produced by HTS experiments. The new Artemis features include multiple sequence read views and variant display. Artemis uniquely provides a comprehensive set of read alignment views and has the ability to display multiple different views of the same dataset at once to the user. This coupled with the wide range of read alignment and variant filters available allows users to easily customize and tailor their views for the particular experimental dataset they are interrogating. In addition, these new features are also available in the Artemis Comparison Tool, ACT (Carver et al., 2005), which means datasets can be compared across multiple genomes or assemblies. This comparison functionality is not available within the other visualization tools.


Artemis, traditionally a genome visualization and annotation tool, has recently been extended and enhanced with a wealth of new features and functionality to support the visualization and analysis of HTS datasets in the context of the genome sequence and annotation.

BamView was originally developed as a stand-alone application to visualize read alignments stored as binary versions of SAM (Sequence Alignment/Map) files and known as BAM files (Li et al., 2009). BamView was subsequently incorporated into Artemis, providing the functionality to view these read alignments in the context of the nucleotide sequence and genomic features. Reads can be displayed in one of five views, aimed at emphasizing different aspects of alignments: stacked, paired-stacked, strand stacked, inferred size and coverage view (Fig. 1). It is possible to zoom in and view the read alignments at the nucleotide level (Fig. 3b). Reads can be filtered by their mapping quality and/or by their SAM flags. Also the panel can be cloned, so that separate views can be shown which is useful when comparing multiple strains for example.

Fig. 1.
The read alignment views in Artemis showing RNA-Seq data for Plasmodium falciparum chromosome 1. (a) The ‘stack’ view (paired reads are blue, multiple reads spanning the same region are green, single reads or reads with an unmapped pair ...
Fig. 3.
The Mycobacterium tuberculosis H37Rv genome showing Illumina re-sequencing data. (a) The red lines on the reads indicate differences to the reference. Below this are an SNP density and coverage plot. (b) A zoomed in view showing the reads (in blue) at ...

In addition, functionality has been added to display the contents of Variant Call Format (VCF, Danecek et al., 2011) files. VCF files are compressed and indexed with ‘bgzip’ and ‘tabix’ (Li, 2011), respectively. Alternatively binary VCF (BCF) can be used, which are generated and indexed, using BCFtools (http://samtools.sourceforge.net/mpileup.shtml). Variants stored in these files are rendered in the VCF view allowing the user to visually inspect the variant calls against the reference sequence and annotation (Fig. 2). Artemis can access the BAM and VCF and the associated index files from a local file system or remotely over HTTP and FTP.

Fig. 2.
A region of S.pneumoniae antibiotic resistant pandemic clone PMEN1. This shows the variation data for 11 strains. The pspA gene in the reference is a pseudogene as a result of a frame shift. The top VCF panel shows variant and non-variant sites without ...

Furthermore, filtering mechanisms have been added to Artemis to allow users to filter variants in real time. The filter can be based on the type of variant (e.g. synonymous, non-synonymous, insertions) or on the properties present in the VCF file such as read depth and mapping quality. These variants can also be automatically annotated according to variant type, including synonymous SNPs, non-synonymous SNPs, insertion, deletion and multiple allele.

Artemis can be used for the initial data exploration of HTS datasets, cross checking of results and for small to medium size genomes it provides a limited set of analyses. This includes calculation of SNP density, read counts and the reads per kilobase per million mapped reads (RPKM, Mortazavi et al., 2008) for selected genes. The read count results can be saved in a tab delimited format file. These results can be used as input to DESeq (Anders and Huber, 2010), for example, for additional differential expression analysis.

Finally, to display other experimental datasets (e.g. microarray, RNA-Seq) it now has support for user-defined input types, which can be rendered graphically as either graphs or heat maps.

In the following sections, we describe these new features in more detail and outline how Artemis can be used in several different HTS experiments as a platform for interrogating, analysing, and interpreting these data.

2.1 Base pair variation

The high yield and low error rate of HTS technologies allows genome re-sequencing to a high depth of coverage. There are many tools available for mapping of short reads against a reference genome, most of which provide the option to output SAM or BAM format, which can now be opened in Artemis. In the simplest scenario, HTS genome re-sequencing allows correction of a reference sequence produced with older technologies, such as capillary sequencing. Figure 3 shows re-sequencing data of a bacterial genome. Red lines show the location of bases in mapped reads that differ from the sequence of the reference genome. Sequencing errors produce randomly distributed lines, while true SNPs between the sequenced DNA and the reference genome can be seen where lines align vertically through all of the reads mapping across a site. In this instance, the reference can be corrected/updated. There are tools to do this type of correction automatically e.g. iCORN (Otto et al., 2010a). However, Artemis can be used to visualize and confirm this error by inspecting the read and mapping qualities and BAM flags of the alignments.

For the analysis of genomic variation, sequence data from a set of isolates can be mapped against a reference genome to identify variations that are biologically significant. Genetic variation can be displayed in the VCF view of Artemis. Variant files are displayed in rows above the reference genomic annotation, with lines representing the position of variations from the reference DNA sequence. By default, SNP variants are colour coded according to the variant base (Table 1), while indels are also highlighted. However, there are alternative colour schemes. Artemis also allows non-variant positions to be displayed, so that a lack of variation can be distinguished from a lack of data or coverage. Figure 2 shows how the Artemis can be used to visualize variation in 11 bacterial isolates mapped against the reference genome (Spn23F).

Table 1.
Colour schemes for the variants in the VCF panel

2.2 Population analysis

When very large numbers of isolates are sequenced, with the intention of identifying genetic variants at the population level, data from all of the samples or isolates can be loaded into Artemis and several types of analyses performed across the entire set. The VCF view supports real-time filtering of both variant and non-variant bases, enabling the user to adjust the parameters upon which base calls are made. For example, a user can choose to filter variants based on read depth or sequencing quality. Furthermore, by combining the BamView and VCF displays, it is possible to manually crosscheck base calls against the raw mapped reads. Filtered data can be exported in VCF format, or the reconstructed DNA sequences of variants can be exported in FASTA format for genes, regions selected in the Artemis annotation track or the entire reference. This output can then be used as input to multiple sequence alignment and phylogenetic tree construction tools. Using their set of filtered variants, users can also conduct further analyses within Artemis such as ranking genes based on SNP density.

2.3 Structural variation

The ability to visualize alignment of sequencing reads mapped against a reference also allows identification of structural variation. Deletions relative to the reference genome can show no mapping in the deleted region, but lack of mapping may also indicate lack of data. Where paired-read information is available, the insert sizes of read-pairs mapping across a deletion will be greater than expected. Figure 4a shows how a deletion in a subset of data from the Mouse Genomes Project (Keane et al., 2011) sequenced with Illumina technology can be clearly identified by visualizing read pairs in Artemis. One strain (green) shows continuous mapping across the entire region, which is also confirmed by the coverage plot. Coverage for the other strain drops to zero for a region of ∼370 bases. For the same strain, paired-reads flanking the unmapped region exhibit an increased insertion length relative to the reference, indicated by their position on the y-axis. Together these two observations are strong evidence that this is a true deletion. Conversely, insertion locations relative to the reference are manifested by the presence of mapped reads with missing mate-pairs (i.e. reads sequenced from the opposite end of the same sequencing template). Upstream of the insertion only forward reads will be mapped, while downstream of the insertion only reverse reads will map. Figure 4b shows how an insertion relative to the mouse reference genome can be detected in mapped Illumina data by identifying regions containing numerous reads with unmapped mates. In the example, a cluster of reads with no mapped mate, shown in orange below the paired reads, sit either side of a drop-out in mapped coverage where novel sequence has been inserted. By selecting the option to show read orientation, it can be seen that the unmapped reads point towards the insertion location.

Fig. 4.
Four Artemis sessions showing data from the Mouse Genomes Project the reference genome is loaded from an indexed FASTA file. (a) Read alignments of two strains are shown in the ‘paired stack’ view with read pairs joined by a grey line. ...

2.4 Transcriptomics

HTS technologies have also revolutionized transcriptomic analyses. High-throughput technologies can be used to sequence cDNA to provide information about the RNA content of a cell. Artemis allows RNAseq data to be viewed in the context of the genome annotation, providing useful guidance for correcting gene boundaries, splice-sites, or for identifying the location of non-coding RNA sequences. RNAseq data also provide valuable information about relative gene expression levels. Figure 5 shows RNAseq data from seven time points during the lifecycle of Plasmodium falciparum can be visualized simultaneously using the user graph heatmap view (Otto et al., 2010b). Artemis can also report RPKM values or the number of reads mapping against each gene.

Fig. 5.
A region in Chromosome 2 of P. falciparum 3D7. Transcriptome data (in wiggle format) is plotted to show expression levels over time. Data are plotted for seven time intervals: 0, 6, 12, 18, 24, 30, 36 h, from the top of the plot to bottom.


Artemis is implemented in Java and packaged for ease of installation on all major platforms (Windows, MacOSX and UNIX). It runs as a stand-alone application and requires a Java Runtime Environment (JRE) of at least 1.6. It uses the Picard library (http://picard.sourceforge.net/) for accessing and manipulating BAM files. The latest version of Artemis available for download includes all the libraries needed to run the application.

ACT is an application for displaying pairwise comparisons between two or more DNA sequences. It can be used to identify and analyse regions of similarity and difference between genomes and to explore conservation of synteny (Holden et al., 2009, Pain et al., 2008, Parkhill et al., 2001, Peacock et al., 2007). Since ACT is built from the components of Artemis it inherits all its features and functionality and so also supports the HTS formats.

With the ever-increasing size of the datasets produced by HTS experiments, effective management of resources is critical for visualizing and analysing such datasets. The original Artemis used a memory-based approach, where all the sequence and annotation data was loaded into memory. Although this type of approach has the advantage of being faster for visualization and navigation, it can be prohibitive for viewing large datasets as it is limited by the amount of memory available. To overcome this, a key focus of the new Artemis has been on developing it to handle larger datasets. To achieve this, Artemis now supports indexed file formats. In addition to support for indexed FASTA files, Artemis displays data contained in BAM, BCF and compressed and indexed VCF files. This has the advantage that the data can reside on disk and only the current visible region needs to be held in memory, thus reducing the amount of memory required and allowing Artemis to efficiently display large vertebrate genomes (Fig. 4).

Artemis has been optimized to minimize its memory requirements. However with the implementation of the indexed FASTA reader in Artemis, the memory requirement is much less (Table 2). It is also faster at opening up as it does not read the entire sequence. There is still an increase in memory with an increase in sequence size because of a cache used to record stop codon positions. The caching mechanism has been further optimized to reduce the memory needed.

Table 2.
Minimum heap memory requirement for Artemis to open a FASTA sequence, an indexed FASTA file and after further optimization of the stop codon cache


In this article, we have described Artemis, an integrated genome visualization and analysis platform for HTS datasets. We have presented several example datasets and discussed the role of Artemis in their visualization and interpretation. Further examples are available on the Artemis website http://www.sanger.ac.uk/resources/software/artemis/ngs/.

Artemis has support for various standard file formats including BAM and VCF, in addition to user-defined input files. These formats can support data from many different types of sequencing platforms. Therefore, Artemis has the potential to visualize and investigate sequencing data from numerous sequencing technologies.

The new views available within Artemis are easily customizable by the user and can be viewed at different levels of resolution. Multiple BAMs and VCFs can be loaded simultaneously for comparison. This allows in-depth preliminary analysis and investigations of HTS datasets in the context of the sequence and annotation of a reference to reveal biologically relevant information.

Using indexed files (BAM, VCF, BCF and FASTA) means that Artemis can efficiently manage memory by only needing to load into memory the data that is currently being displayed in the interface. This improves the performance and enables large genomes to be viewed and interpreted along with large HTS datasets.

In summary, the latest version of Artemis is a powerful tool that can be used in a variety of different sequencing-based experiments including genome re-sequencing, population scale variation detection and transcriptome sequencing.


We thank Kim Wong at the WTSI for providing feedback on the Mouse Genomes dataset.

Funding: Wellcome Trust through their funding of the Pathogen Genomics group at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute (grant number WT 076964).

Conflict of Interest: none declared.


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