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Curr Opin Chem Biol. 2007 Feb;11(1):4-11. Epub 2007 Jan 5.

Ontology annotation: mapping genomic regions to biological function.

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  • 1Evolutionary Systems Biology Group, Artificial Intelligence Center, SRI International, Menlo Park, CA 94025, USA. paul.thomas@sri.com


With numerous whole genomes now in hand, and experimental data about genes and biological pathways on the increase, a systems approach to biological research is becoming essential. Ontologies provide a formal representation of knowledge that is amenable to computational as well as human analysis, an obvious underpinning of systems biology. Mapping function to gene products in the genome consists of two, somewhat intertwined enterprises: ontology building and ontology annotation. Ontology building is the formal representation of a domain of knowledge; ontology annotation is association of specific genomic regions (which we refer to simply as 'genes', including genes and their regulatory elements and products such as proteins and functional RNAs) to parts of the ontology. We consider two complementary representations of gene function: the Gene Ontology (GO) and pathway ontologies. GO represents function from the gene's eye view, in relation to a large and growing context of biological knowledge at all levels. Pathway ontologies represent function from the point of view of biochemical reactions and interactions, which are ordered into networks and causal cascades. The more mature GO provides an example of ontology annotation: how conclusions from the scientific literature and from evolutionary relationships are converted into formal statements about gene function. Annotations are made using a variety of different types of evidence, which can be used to estimate the relative reliability of different annotations.

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