Introducing the binner package

2 minute read

It’s been more than a year since I posted my first experiments in reading ABI fsa files in R. Since that time I’ve come up with a complete working solution that allows me to complete my entire AFLP analysis workflow within R, without resorting to expensive proprietary programs like GeneMapper or GeneMarker.

I’ve tidied up the code and packaged it as binner. It’s posted on github, and you can install it directly using Hadley Wickham’s devtools package.

So far I’ve tested it on only two Debian GNU/Linux installations and one Windows machine. I’m very curious if it works on other setups. The graphical bin editor in particular may require some platform-dependent tweaking.

Getting started

## Only necessary if you don't already have devtools:

## Load devtools:

## Install binner:

## Load binner:

## Check out the example in the help:

I haven’t put together a vignette, but the help files have a complete working example – see ?readFSA and ?scanGel.


  1. reading ABI .fsa files
  2. normalizing electropherograms
  3. identifying and sizing peaks
  4. viewing individual electropherograms
  5. dropping, adding and renaming samples
  6. Automated peak-binning, using the RawGeno algorithm
  7. Visually editing bins
  8. Generating presence-absence matrices for further analysis in R (or export for use in other programs, if you like)

Reading .fsa files

The first three steps are glued together in the readFSA function. The slowest part of the entire process is calibrating the size standard, necessary for sizing peaks. I use the algorithm from the AFLP package, slighlty tweaked. The bottleneck occurs in a loop that runs lm on various subsets of potential ladder peaks to determine the best fit. It may be worth re-implementing this in C. As is, it may take 6-10 minutes to read in a large (100+) number of .fsa files.

It just occured to me that the length of this step is also impacted by the choice of ladder. Specifically, we use the GS500(-250) ladder. This standard has a ‘250’ bp peak that you are supposed to ignore (it is usually closer to 246 bp in my tests). Consequently, the algorithm has to spend considerable cycles figuring out which peak corresponds to the ‘250’ peak so it can be excluded. Other standards might give you a slightly faster processing time, if that’s important to you.

binner uses the same sizing calculations as the commercial PeakScanner and GeneMapper programs (i.e., local southern). So other than being (slightly) slower, it produces near-identical results. (There are slight differences due to different smoothing parameters.)

An imported fsa file

Editing bins

The most innovative feature of this package, and the only thing not currently available in either AFLP or RawGeno, is a facility for manually reviewing and editing bin boundaries. The main value of this is in allowing you to exclude regions where there is no clear division between bins. The binning algorithm will make a decision, but it’s not always appropriate. With the bin editor, you can decide for yourself if you want to delete questionable bins, or modify the boundaries manually.

The `scanGel()` interface

Next steps

There are many possible tweaks to extend the value of binner for processing AFLP data. However, without some external interest they will probably not get implemented. Our current lab focus is on microsatellites. As a result, I’m looking at available microsatellite processing options in R, and will look to extend binner in a way to help fill any gaps in providing a complete workflow within R.