Modeling for Scalability - Ascending into Automatic Genome Sequencing

Thomas Wetter1, Thomas Pfisterer2
1University of Heidelberg, Institute for Medical Biometry and Informatics, Heidelberg, Germany, 
2German Cancer Research Center, Dept. Molecular Biophysics, Heidelberg, Germany,


A cartography of the human genome (sequence of all nucleotids of the chromosomes) presently requires repetitive human rework of the automatic nucleotid calling. Knowledge based automatic error correction was to be achieved in definite intermediate states comprising different complexities of error conditions. In a supervised apprenticeship phase a knowledge level model has been achieved and undergone preliminary testing. It uses the same inference structure with different domain structures of increasing complexity. Changing from one complexity to another is a well understood scaling up. Knowledge level modelling revealed some shortcomings of KADS concerning different epistemological states of elements of the case description.


Scope of the project

A cartography of the complete human genome to be achieved by the year 2005 has been set up as the ambitious goal in human genetics. Parts of the cartographic process are already fully automized, others still require human expertise. Presently the 2005-schedule is under risk due to a bottleneck in human postprocessing of unclear or contradictory results of conventional processing of gel electrophoresis data. Knowledge based methods are being developed to automize the disambiguation of an increasing amount of these unclear cases. A major side condition of the development of the respective knowledge based system is to proceed in an incremental way. In order to deal with the bottleneck in disambiguating the electrophoresis results as early and as sustainably as possible partial solutions for easy problems must be delivered for routine use in such a way that they remain operational as genuine parts of forthcoming solutions covering more complex problems etc. The second side condition is the need to integrate strategic reasoning elements - which problems to tackle and which to pass to the human expert given a certain level of competence of the system - with symbolic inference and analysis of sensory data.

A knowledge modeling process suitable to satisfy these needs starts with identifying cues for classifying problem situations based on symbolic representations available as result of the automatic electrophoresis data preprocessing. The intricate aspect of this classification process is that it in the first place relies on results of electrophoresis analysis but will put these results under question as soon as the decision to tackle a certain problem has been made. Along with the decision to tackle a certain problem an inferencing goal has to be set up whether to argue in favour or in doubt of the hypothesis expressed as a result of the automatic electrophoresis. Support of the respective goal may come from sources as diverse as analog light absorption curves on the one side and second order structural properties of the DNA macromolecule and properties of the chemistry used to stain the strands. The resulting knowledge based support system is integrated into the workplace of the expert who is supposed to process those cases that the system passes. It is designed for optimal specifity i.e. in case of doubt will pass to the expert. This is to reflect the requirement of extremely high correctness - the tolerated error rate for the human - computer - integrated workplace is 0.03%. Nontheless the expectation is that by thorough guidance through human experts and their capability of identifying problem classes that are both common and relatively easy, a coverage of 30% of the doubtful cases can be achieved at an early stage.

Outline of the domain

In order to understand the knowledge acquisition and modeling methods outlined below, a basic understanding of the experimental work environment of the geneticist is required. A good introduction into the computational aspects of the field is (Setubal & Meidanis, 1997).

Genetic information is coded in double strings (`helixes') each composed of sequences of the four bases adenin, cytosin, guanin, and thymin (A, C, G, and T). In the case of man, 23 double strings (`chromosomes') portray the full genetic prodigy of a human being. The bases allow hydrogen bridge bindings with specific complementary bases (adenin $\leftrightarrow$ thymin, cytosin $\leftrightarrow$ guanin) each. As a consequence essential for propagating genetic information both strands of the double helix have a blueprint character. Given the sequence of bases found in one half, the complementary half is fully determined. This essentially is the constraint or redundancy in the genetic code that enables cell division and growth of offspring cells which replicate the genetic code of the progenitor cell.

Decoding the human (resp. other species) genetic information means

To achieve a map of a certain part of a chromosome a segment of cosmid size (about 40000 base) is implanted into the DNA or RNA of a virus (called vector) in such a way, that the virus is still able to reproduce and amplify the implanted vector. After amplification the copies of the segment are cut into smaller pieces (e.g. using restriction enzymes) in different ways. These pieces (inserts) are again amplified in a virus (e.g. the phage M13) and afterwards used in an enzymatic reaction that produces chains of varying length (but all from the same starting position) of the complementary strand in such a way that they are stained in different colour depending on the last nucleotide in the chain.

The mixture of these chains of different length can be seperated by gel electrophoresis to seperate the fragments by their different mobility and speed in an electric field. The bases pass a sensor in a single file and can be identified (read) one by one based on the light absorption of their respective stains by the base-caller.

Inhomogenities of the gel or of the electrophoresis procedure, impurifications, special properties of the used chemistry and secondary structures of the DNA result in unregular sensory signals and produce errors in the base calling procedure.

Because electrophoresis is able to read only sequences of a few hundred bases with good quality (300 - 700) a lot of these reads (e.g. 600 to 1000 depending on the size of the cosmid etc.) of partially overlapping regions are produced and sequenced. These sequences are fault tolerantly assembled to larger sequences (called contigs) using the overlaps between them to determine which reads to combine. Finding these overlaps is the fragment assembly problem (Myers & Weber, 1997). Enough data is produced to cover the cosmid about 4-6 fold on average. This redundancy of having a couple of reads for each position uncovers base-calling errors, but repair of an error cannot be decided based upon by a single majority vote. Because of sparse data about some regions and errors in the electrophoresis, amplification or base-calling, and assemply process we get more than a single contig covering the whole segment (sometimes up to 100 or more) of interest. Thus finding connections between contigs and misplaced reads in the contigs is another editing problem.

Figure 1: Symbolic level of sequence editing. Each row represents one gel electrophoretic read. The bottom line contains the consensus sequence build out of the above reads by a majority vote.

Figure 1 displays an original overlay of four differently coloured curves. Each colour denotes the intensity detected for one of the bases. In sections where one curve displays a peak dominating the intensities of the three other curves, the respective base is called. In most non-obvious sections a heuristic call still takes place, but the result is less reliable. Only in highly ambiguous sections the base caller writes a dash (`-') instead of the letter of a base.

Figure 2: Signal level of sequence editing. Signals produced by three gel electrophoresis reads at the same position of the contig.

Figure 2 displays the sensory data from 3 aligned readings. Each column denotes one presumable site of a base. Each row denotes one reading. A letter A, C, G, or T in a row/column intersect denotes the base delivered by the base caller as the mostly likely one. An assessment of the certainty of the call is not supplied. Besides the dash for highly unclear sections we now encounter an asterisk (`*') as another special symbol. The asterisk is not written by the base caller but by the alignment algorithm. It denotes a site in one reading where no base had been suggested by the base caller, but where a base occurs in the respective sites of one or more other readings. It can be understood as the repair of an apparent leak in one reading as compared to parallelized readings.

The bottom line of the set of letter/dash/asterisks sequences inf figure 1 denotes the so called consensus. For each column i.e. without any context considerations it is defined as the symbol found in the majority of the lines, or a dash when there is no clear majority. The consensus is the basis of the final decision about the base that will be written into the world wide data bases of human genetics (e.g. GenBank or EMBL).

However, it can obviously not be used straight away. In the first place, the special symbols `*' and `-' have to be eliminated. In some cases a majority vote has to be outvoted based on a quality assessment of the original base readings. In extreme cases one dissenting call may become the consensus outvoting a clear majority. Presently, human experts check all columns with at least one special symbol or at least one dissenting call, search for possible joins between contigs and for possibly misplaced reads in contigs. This takes at least 2 or 3 days for a segment of cosmid size (40000 bases).

The revision of the consensus in all cases that are not absolutely unequivocal is among the tasks to be fulfilled by the knowledge based system (KBS). Further tasks will be outlined during the description of the model being developed. As to consensus revision, different problems occur according to presence/absence of asterisks or dashes. Different problems require to define different goals to be proven. But in the end, all inferences have to draw upon the original sensor data from gel electrophoresis. Some inferences do with assessments of individual readings. Complex problems require comparative assessments of parallel readings. More complex problems furthermore require protocol related features of readings. The knowledge engineering process has to be conducted in such a way that some solutions for certain problems become fully and reliably operational early. These early partial solutions should, however, model those inferences that occur again as part of methods for more complex problems, in a reusable form.

Outline of the modeling process

So far we have concentrated on the subject matter of specimen used in molecular genetics, how they are provided, and what quality and deviations from perfect interpretation can be expected. Now we change perspective and look at such material through the eyes of a human expert whose job it is to take the material as above and to finalize it. The result of his/her work becomes the definite consensus sequence that professionals around the world will use as reference genetic information. In the sequel we will sketch the tasks, goals, methods, and knowledge structures that are applied. Some of these structures will be further detailed below.

On the highest level of structuring, an expert chooses or becomes in charge of an overall task. This task allocation - in contrast to all further structures to follow below - is fully goal or process management driven. One task that is already obvious from the outline of the domain is to clarify uncertainties (asterisks, dashes, dissenting calls ..) in a circumscribed set of aligned readings.

Each such set of aligned readings, however, only covers a small part of one chromosome, since complete chromosomes are much too long to pass gel electrophoresis in a single experiment. Therefore, partial solutions have to be attached to each other to form contigs. Contig construction is another task that an expert may be in charge of. Yet another is to separate human base sequences from vector, i.e. virus base sequences etc. All these tasks finally use elementary inferences that can be drawn from intensities of the colours of the four bases. That is why the model of interpretation of those sensory data has to be highly general and reusable. On the other hand, different tasks also combine different nonsensory classification and manipulation methods.

For several reasons we will concentrate in this article on the task of clarifying uncertainties in a set of aligned readings. One reason is that this task creates the highest workload for experts in genome analysis. Automization of this task provides the highest increase in productivity. A second reason is that several effects can be easily explained when modeling this task.

Given a certain task, data are sequentially inspected to localize regions that require rework. Localization is based on symbolic data alone, i.e. on single or aligned sequences of base letters and special symbols. Localization is easy. It can always be made using a single column and always draws upon a deviation from consensus based upon unequivocal readings in all rows.

Whenever a site of deviation has been found, an interesting mixture of problem solving methods is applied. Generally, the problem that causes the uncertainty must first be identified and then removed. Identification means to formulate a hypothesis about which symbol or symbols in a column or sequence of columns are false and which are true. One symbolic appearance of a problem may be compatible with several causes. E.g. a column with two T´s and five asterisks may be a five fold undercall and end up with a T consensus - if the two T´s are very well supported by the sensory data of their readings and T finds at least minor support in the other readings as well. Or it may be a two fold overcall and end up as nothing, if the support for the two T´s by the sensory data is only minor and none of the five asterisks provides additional support.


After a detailed outline of the field of molecular genetics we now turn to a structured description of tasks, inferences, and domain. This structure follows to some extent the layers suggested in KADS. We should, however, note that it has not been our aim to proceed according to KADS in all detail but to rationalize our process of structuring by recurring to KADS principles whenever appropriate.


As already outlined above the cartographic process of the human genetic code involves several tasks which start from a hypothetical symbolic notation of sequences of bases and end with a definite sequence of bases after taking symbolic, sensoric, and other information into account. Selecting a specific task is not result of knowledge based inferences but of managerial decisions that coordinate the efforts of different labs world wide to work on complementary parts of the cartography. Therefore, we take the stance to treat tasks as different co-existing entities, automatic selection among which need not be supported. However, as we will see, problem solving methods for the different tasks have elements in common, which obviously should only be modelled once and then reused in other tasks.


According to traditional KADS (Wielinga 1992) next would be the inference layer. Ideally an interpretation model from a library (Breuker & van der Velde, 1994) would be used and the domain structure would follow naturally in response to the knowledge needs of the elementary inferences. It will turn out that the problem solving method is a mixture of diagnostic and repair inferences. This mixture is not available in the library. Therefore, a model driven approach in its pure form cannot work. Furthermore, to motivate and then model the problem solving method, a model of the domain has to exist as a reference. Hence, the presentation of the model proceeds from domain to inference.

Side note: The knowledge modelling process The present manual solution for the problem of finalizing base sequencing is conducted by experts at computerized workplaces (UNIX workstations). The more difficult the problem the more does the solution draw upon detailed knowledge of the biochemistry of substances involved, genetics of vectors and inserts etc. Quite some problems can, however, be solved after being taught the major principles and prevailing rules. In other works: Given some background in biology and chemistry - as e.g. taught in undergraduate courses in medical informatics in Germany - and some computer literacy, the routine work of base editing can be learned within weeks by being apprenticed in a lab of molecular genetics.

Therefore, in consent with the project partner we chose a mixture of an ethnographic approach (Meyer, 1989), classical knowledge elicitation techniques, and supervision.

Concretely, a junior knowledge engineer, endowed with basic capabilities in knowledge modelling (a la KADS) and knowledge elicitation, became an apprentice in the Instiute for Molecular Biology in Jena, the largest institution in central Europe involved in the human genome project. He had the opportunity to be taught by experts of different levels and - as it turned out - of different styles of editing base sequences. His suggestions to systematically probe the experts were complied with. In other words, he found excellent work conditions to learn the job through the perspective of the experts. Needless to say that there was no manual or guideline available, because most of the nowadays experts had grown into the job they were now doing and had personally collected their experiences and had each founded them on their individual implicit academic and professional knowledge.

In addition, a senior knowledge engineer experienced in the development of knowledge elicitation methods, in formalizing KADS, and in theoretical foundations of knowledge modelling, served as a supervisor to the junior knowledge engineer. He made sure that structures emerging during the period of apprenticeship, were made explicit rather than becoming internalized and implicit before they could be grabbed.

In combination, a structure evolved that maps the intrinsic properties of the subject matter of molecular biology and the processes involved rather than idiosynchracies of individual editors. To make this structure apparent, we first need to specify the terminology which is at the base of the modelling.


In addition to content related terms such as the names of the bases or names of activities we have to specify terms that set up the structure of the domain and the problems to solve.

A principle that turned out to provide excellent guidance in introducing appropriate terms was to distinguish between

The true state of nature in the task of genome sequencing corresponds to the actual sequence of nucleotids in the DNA. It is precisely specified in every situation but not observable or known by any other means. Observable symbols are the base letters and the asterisk which are delivered by the sequencer. Their epistemilogical status is just the reverse: They are known but do not represent the true state of nature. Hypotheses link the two: they state what errors in the reading process may have transformed the true state into the observable reading. These considerations form the background for the following terms and their relations.
correct call:
theoretically: the base that there is on a certain location on a chromosome

pragmatically: a call that is in accordance with all other calls in the column
correct column:

theoretically: a column where the consensus correctly determines the true base
pragmatically: a column with identical base symbols in all its non-blank rows
hypothetically: a column with identical symbols in all its non-blank rows

While a hypothetically correct column determines a transient state of the inference, where special symbols may still be included to indicate working hypotheses about the future solution, a pragmatically correct column has all such hypotheses either proved or rejected ending with a definite base sequence. This distinction will be important when we distinguish our problem solving method from a heuristic classification method. In molecular genetics the existence of one and only one correct solution is out of the question.

deviation from theoretically correct call

fault indicator:

symbol that coincides with deviating symbols in its column; deviating symbols may be differing base letters, special symbols in places of bases, or vice versa.

primary fault column:

leftmost column where a fault indicator is localized.

fault column:

column where a fault indicator is localized.

Figure 3: Example of a fault region

To understand this terminology requires some additional structuring derived from properties of the control structure of the problem solving method. By convention, its inference proceeds sequentially through a fragment in one direction, say from left to right. Since the average share of columns containing fault indicators is below 10%, it can be assumed for the majority of cases that a problem column is preceded by several pragmatically correct columns. Definitely, it will be assumed that the column immediately left of the primary fault column is pragmatically correct. It should be noted that a pragmatically correct column is one where all processes which are based on several biological specimens have ended up in calling the same base. In that case it is highly likely that the column is also theoretically correct. At least is this the working hypothesis of all human experts in editing: never doubt a column where symbols in all non blank rows are letters and are equal.

fault region:

set of columns right of and including a primary fault column, each of which is itself a fault column. Theoretically a fault region may be indefinitely long. Practically, due to the low share of faults in general and properties of the alignment algorithm they rarely are wider than 3-4 columns.

atomic fault hypothesis:

assumption that a certain symbol in a fault column is faulty.

An atomic fault hypothesis is characterized by

Atomic fault hypotheses can be formulated using symbolic information alone.
Figure: Some possible fault hyposthesis of the example in figure 3. The atomic fault position is located via the faulty read and the column number relative to the begin of the faulty region. read 2,1: T $\leftarrow $ C indicates the fault of an erroneous T instead of a C in the first faulty column of the second read.
\begin{figure}\begin{center}\begin{tabular}{\vert l\vert ll\vert} \hline& \m......d 3,2:& * $\leftarrow$\space T \\ \hline\end{tabular}\end{center}\end{figure}

Domain structure

The visible objects of our work are sets of sequences of base calls expressed in letters A, C, G, T and special symbols `dash' (for unknown base) and `asterisk' for site where a base may be assumed. This visible representation reflects a reality of sequences of bases, which we are really interested in. Since errors may occur when mapping signals of bases into symbols, rework and error correction is required. It is the central goal of our work.

Unfortunately we may have both single and multiple faults in the base calling itself and we may have propagating effects of single and multiple faults. We speak of single resp. multiple faults as long as one resp. more than one individual reading fails to call the base correctly. E.g. in figure 3 the C in row 1, column 3 may be a singly misread T. Such cases are covered by atomic fault hypotheses. Or the T's below the C may be multiply misread C's. These two misreads would form a composite fault hypothesis. Both faults have in common that they result from base calling alone and affect one column only. Faults may have a different structure when they result from the process that follows base calling and tries to parallelize different readings (`alignment'). Alignment may require to insert the asterisk symbol in regions where some of the reads display more symbols than others. An inserted asterisk in a read with one fewer symbol manifests the assumption that a base has remained uncovered and will be recovered once attentions has been drawn to the site by the asterisk fault indicator. In contrast to the above single or multiple faults in base calling now more than one column is affected. We speak of fault propagation, when the attempt of the alignment process to compensate for one fault goes wrong. In the example the assumption that a base has remained uncovered may be wrong. Rather the other read which displays more symbols may show a base which truly is not there. All these considerations are to reveal the structure behind composite fault hypotheses. Each composite fault hypothesis can be understood as the sequence of operations that undo one possible single fault, multiple fault, or fault propagation. They generate a constellation of base letters1 that would be present if the error had not been made. Except for very simple cases more than one fault hypothesis is suited to explain the appearance of the fault region. Some hypotheses are more, others are less likely. Likelihood decreases with number and diversity of atomic fault hypotheses involved.

It now becomes obvious that the problem solving method centers around sophisticated generate inferences, whose realizations heavily draw upon structural properties of the domain.


Problem solving method

The inference structure of the problem solving methods is displayed in figure 5. It is in the style of non formal KADS. We usually find one static input role, noted to the ledftt of the inference (related to the KADS I knowledge sources or the Canonical Functions of Aben (Aben, 1994) and one dynamic input role noted above the inference. Some output roles are set value; their respective boxes are indicated as bold bars to the left.

It would go beyond the scope of this article to discuss every detail of the inference structure. But several details will be explained because they illustrate the concept of scalability underlying our approach. We will proceed by relating the roles to concrete domain structures and choices that we have in the domain without changing the inference structure.

The case description consists of a column in the parallelized set of readings, the columns to the right of that column, and the gel eletrophoresis data right of and including the columns2. Different parts ot the case descriptions are used at different stages of the inference. Since a scalable part of the cases is passed to the expert rather than undergoing all inferences, only those few abstractions are done right away, which are required before the decision to treat or to pass the case. Others are only carried out on demand later for those cases that are treated by the system. Abstraction of the primary fault column has to be done immediately, because based on its appearance the decision is made whether to accept or reject (and pass to the expert) the case.

Abstractions at this stage are minor. As an example, for the inference process it does not care in which row(s) certain deviating symbol(s) is/are found. It is sufficient to know the number and type of deviations. Therefore all distributions of a certain number of deviating symbols across rows can be regarded as equivalent. The abstractions applied here map different distributions of patterns across rows upon a common prototypical reference pattern.

Abstract case descriptions are then matched against selection criteria to accept a case for automatic treatment or to pass it to the expert. The selection criteria are among the most effective means to scale the system up or down. They may be formulated as narrow as to accept only cases with asterisk in the consensus. Or they may just be left away, passing everything to the automatic system. Of course this "filter" has to be in accordance with the sophisticatioin of the domain model which is subsequently applied to solve the cases that have not been passed to the human expert.

Figure 5: Inference structure of the problem solving methods

Obviously the two decision classes are to accept or reject for automatic treatment. For those cases accepted, the abstraction of the case description now has to span the fault region. The system description introduced just before can be reused here. The fault generation model used for the generate comprises atomic fault hypotheses which can be visualized as rewrite rules for replacing a symbol hypothetized to be faulty by a symbol hypothetized to be true or less faulty. The former means that a letter replaces a symbol. The latter relates to those situations where a dash or asterisk replaces a letter. Epistemologically this means that the strong statement "presence of a specific nucleotid" is replaced by the weaker statement: "presence of some unknown nucleotid" or "assumption of presence of some nucleotid". Scalability comes into play by including fewer or more rewrite rules as base repertoire in the system description. Obviously a system description that includes more rules has the principle capacity to solve more cases. Scalability also comes into play in the definition of the breadth of the fault region achieved by concatenating atomic fault hypotheses. The breadth of the fault region can be set to a definite limit (e.g. primary fault column plus three columns to the right) or can be kept floating according to the column extension of the most extended fault description generated from the abstracted data using the fault generation model.

The fault generation model comprises atomic fault hypotheses and the mechanisms to integrate them into composite fault hypotheses. The respective set of hypotheses and mechanisms is another means of scaling the system. Simple variants may only include single or multiple fault hypotheses and leave away fault propagation hypotheses. In the case of complex fault models with their reach of potentially infinitely many columns interference with the inferences determining the breadth of the fault region, Experiences have to be collected for a fine tuning of these scaling parameters.

In most cases the generate leads to more than one fault description. In case of more than one it suggests itself to establish a ranking among the fault descriptions. This allows to start the subsequent steps first with the most likely fault descriptions. Likelihood is not necessarily a purely statistical measure. Some criteria of the plausibility of a fault description can be derived from their generation process. E.g. fault generation models that require many atomic fault hypotheses are assumed to be less likely than ones with only few atominc fault hypotheses. Fault likelyhood models may also vary with the task under work. Tasks that need to deal with fragments near the (less reliable) end of a read, may require other fault likelihoods than tasks that deal with high quality middle parts of reads.

Given a fault preference list the abstracted fault descriptions can be matched one by one in descending order of likelihood against case descriptions.

It is important to note that so far all inferences have been based upon symbolic information, namely letters for bases and a few special symbols. System description 2 now incorporates sensory information from the original gel eletrophoresis data. The abstraction that takes places is from real valued curves to features of the curve shape (peak height, integral, slope etc.) It goes beyond the scope of this text to provide much detail about this part of domain structure and inferences. However, the reader should have in mind that a potential in scaling up is to take global parameters of individual curves (average energy, known limitations to display clear peaks for certain sequences ...) into account. These, again, may vary for different techniques of staining bases. Therefore, the abstract inferences are general and reusable. But the domain structures may have to be exchange when the specimens have undergone a different experimental protocol.

The decision class resulting after comparing a case description that incorporates symbolic and sensory information with the respective system description 4 is the degree to which the fault description under study explains both composite fault hypothesis and gel electrophoresis curves. If the degree is sufficient the composite fault hypothesis is accepted and the respective repair - i.e. overwriting one or more symbols - is initiated. For some fault regions none of the composite fault hypotheses may achieve a sufficient degree of explanatory coverage. Then a primary fault column that had a priori been accepted for automatic processing may a posteriori be rejected again and then passed to the human expert.

Those cases that reach the repair inference undergo a definitive rewriting of some symbols. There is not much difference between this and the fault generation model. However, conceptually this now is a factual action whereas the generation of a fault description is a tentative temporal suggestion. Furthermore, some fault generation mechanism that involve asterisks have to be done differently in the generate and the repair inferences.

Finally the abstract case description has to undergo the reverse inference of the first abstract in order to map abstract row etc structures into concrete rows of a given fragment. This is achieved by the final specify inference.


The first class of fault hypotheses we chose to handle were the overcalls. In the current technical setting they are very common and they are also important because they often affect the consensus sequence. Because fault hypothes generation is simple for most cases we could concentrate on extracting appropriate signal parameters and on making the actual decision about the hypothesis. A first prototype handling overcalls will be evaluated in the next weeks. The results will give us a basis to decide on which parts of the problem solving method we have to focus in the next iteration.


During the development of the system the results are permanently checked for composite and for atomic fault hypotheses with smalle samples from alternating projects by the junior knowledge engineer, who has been trained in editing nucleotide sequences and can detect false decisions. This enables him to conduct a permanent tuning of the domain model, until a state is reached that suggests formal evaluation. The evaluation of the method will be conducted by comparing the results of projects hand edited through 'senio editors' with the results of the same projects after knowledge based editing (without manual interactions). Both projects will start directly after the fragment assembly process. The manual editors will perform only edit operations for the problems which are covered by the system at its current competence level. The ratio of correctly handled problems will be computed. This value intends to meassure the correctness of the decision process.

If the system is competent to handle a substantial proportion of the edit problems the automated editing will be evaluated by comparing the time needed for computer-assisted editing and the time needed for conventional editing. This value is a meassure for the effect of the system and its ability to achieve the intended aim.

Measuring the correctness of the system is easier than evaluating the effect of the solution but both have to take different personal editing styles into account (e.g. more or less conservative).


Comparison with statistical methods

Other approaches try to take advantage of the different probabilities for dinucleotides and trinucleotides. For open reading frames (sequences that code for proteins) trinucleotides are linked via the genetic code with the amino acids - each occuring with individual frequency. This approach makes sense for sequencing cDNA but not for genomic DNA material that mostly does not code for proteins. Statistical methods can be used in some inferences if considered appropriate. Neural networks, Bayesian networks, cluster analysis etc. may be used for linking signal properties to abstract system descriptions or to evaluate these descriptions if considered benefical and necessary. Pure statistical methods are inadequate to cover the whole process including hypotheses generation and determination of repair actions.

Justification of a scalable approach

Several mechanisms of appropriately scaling have been indicated in the description of the problem solving method[*]. The overall project requirements demand that scaling up is done conservatively. Thorough quality assurance of stages that attempt to cover more difficult cases or to apply less clearly understood knowledge has to be done to guarantee the very low amount of false positive (repair) actions.

However, the amount of manual work along the lines of this article that is required until full decyphling of the human genetic prodigy has been estimated to amount to much more than 100 person years. If his estimate is correct, a very low scaling first solution, which covers about 25% of the most common and not too hard cases, already saves 25 person years of work compared to a development cost of much less than half a person year. Therefore, the presented approach is not only structurally interesting and challenging but also of high economic value.

Comparing scalability and gradual requirements

Our approach to scalability may at first sight appear similar to van Harmelen´s and ten Teije´s gradual requirements (Harmelen & Teije  1998). There are, however, clear differences. Van Harmelen and Ten Teije extend the notion of coverage of problem solving methods (PSMs) in a way that satisfies needs of many knowledge acquisition and knowlege modelling situations. Their solution is achieved by methods from theoretical computer science and provides a precise systematic treatment of degree of mismatch between desired and actually achieved goals of a PSM. Our approach is managerial and practical rather than theoretical. It is based on properties of the domain model rather than on properties of the PSM. Our PSM remains the same through all scales but our domain model is continually scaled up. On a certain level or scale a domain model can be seen as composed of two capacities, which have to be in accordance. One is the domain knowledge to actually solve a problem of a certain complexity. The other capacity is to distinguish problems covered from those that are not yet covered and to pass those problems to the human expert, that are not yet covered by the system.

Benefits of using KADS

The previous section has already indicated that the use of KADS provides clear terminology and background to both, concretely modelling knowledge (about genome sequencing) and comparing different ways of how to model knowledge (ours and the one of van Harmelen and ten Teije). Among the traits of KADS which proved especially useful in the case of modelling genome sequencing was Other knowledge engineering approaches that exhibit the above three properties would also have helped. But to the authors' knowledge, there is no method presently available that can compete with KADS on these three criteria. KADS, though, has not been used in its original intention starting from a PSM or inference structure ("Interpretation model") and modelling the domain in accordance with the information needs of the PSM. Rather, the domain has been modelled first and the inference structure followed naturally once the domain model had been achieved. This is in accordance with previous own (Schmidt &  Wetter 1998) and other (Bürsner and Schmidt,  1995) observations that inference structures need not necessarily preceed domain models.

Limitations in the knowledge level modelling capacity of KADS

Nontheless it has to be stated that KADS does not cover one epistemological aspect that proved important for the knowledge level modelling of genome sequencing. KADS does not provide means for declaring domain entities as observable with unknown truth value, and declaring other entities as not observable but definitely true or false. Such distinctions go beyond the usual KADS ontology with typical roles such as symptoms, fault indicators, diagnoses etc. Such an ontology is suitable for several kinds of diagnosis where the true and observable presence of fault indicators is used to establish truth states for diagnoses. In other words: A problem space of observable known symptoms is transformed into a goal space with non observable but assumed true diagnoses. In our case the problem space and the goal space are identical what its elements are concerned: It consists of the symbols for the nucleotids (plus special symbols). The transformation now consists of attributing the truth value "true" to some of the "fault indicators" - thereby paradoxically declaring them to be "absence of fault"-indicators. On the other hand the transformation consists of attributing the truth value "false" to some of the "fault indicators" - thereby paradoxically declaring them to be "fault-indicators".

Suitability of ethnography and supervision

The process of knowledge modelling has been rather conventional except for the fact that the junior knowledge engineer has become a junior team member in the group of experts and has concretely worked on authentic material. He will continue to do so in order to extend our understanding of the subject matter itself and of additional potential of scaling up. Extensive tool support has not been required because clear comprehension was much more important than modelling of lots of details. In depth comprehension, however, was best achieved by the combination of ethnography and supervision.

The organisational environment of genome sequencing lends itself for an ethnographic approach with supervision. In genome sequencing the knowledge engineer can more truely become a junior team member than in many other situations. Compared to many tasks in medical domains, control of complex industrial processes etc., the risk of errors in the apprentice phase comes close to zero. The knowledge engineer in his role as a junior team member among biochemists and molecular biologists can just try and apply what he has learnt the day before. The senior team member can check, discuss and, if necessary, revise the early attempts of the knowledge engineer. Therefore, growing from an apprentice to a junior team member role is quite natural in the setting of genome sequencing. As a matter of fact, new human members of the team didn't and don't learn differently than the knowledge engineer. This makes obvious the need for supervision. Because the natural way of training an apprentice is to enable him for doing the job rather than enabling him to analyse and make explicit the structures underlying the job. Therefore, a procedure that carefully balanced the normal process of apprenticeship with a "KADS-filtered" supervision allowed to arrive at a detailed and sophisticated model within short time.


The research presented in this article was conducted in close cooperation with the Genome Sequencing Center of the Institut for Molecular Biotechnology, Beutenbergstrase 11, 07745 Jena, Germany.

The authors thank B. Drescher and M. Platzer for their highly efficient guidance into the subtleties of molecular genetics and base sequencing.

This work is supported by the Bundesministerium für Bildung, Wissenschaft, Forschung und Technologie by grant number 01 KW 9611.


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... letters1
For practical reasons asterisks may still be present at this stage. They will, however, not occur in subsequent repair operations.
... columns2
Future developments may include all gel eletrophoresis data of a fragment or at least lumped pararmeters of all its reads, such as average signal to noise ration etc.