BioC2017 Developer Day

A couple of weeks back I was in Boston for BioC2017, the annual Bioconductor meeting. This is my favourite conference because I get to hear from and meet the awesome community that develop and use R/Bioconductor packages to enable research in high-throughput biology. The agenda and slides for the 3 days are available from I’m drawing on these notes that I scrawled during Developer Day, the first day of the meeting.

Developer Day is a chance for members of the Bioconductor core team to give updates on the project as a whole and to explain key infrastructure that the community can leverage in their own development and research. Just as importantly, however, it’s also an opportunity for package developers to showcase their latest cool ideas. And there were plenty of those! Here’s a summary of my highlights.

A major focus of the meeting was the development of infrastructure to support single-cell genomics. The past few months has seen frenetic and very exciting development in this area by members of the Bioconductor community. Incidentally, much of this has been organised via the new-ish Bioconductor Slack channel - if interested, you can sign up at

Martin Morgan, the Project Lead, kicked things off with an overview that highlighted the impressive scope of the project and its continued growth - there are now more than 1300 packages on Bioconductor with more than 900 maintainers (slides). I find that ratio of packages to developers pretty exciting: lots of people are contributing their expertise while the project as a whole has maintained a very high level of interoperability. Martin also kicked off an ongoing discussion on how the project should try to integrate with and learn lessons from the very popular tidyverse of R packages.

Aaron Lun demonstrated the power and utility of the community effort to develop single-cell genomics infrastructure by presenting an analysis of single-cell RNA-seq data of 1.3 million mouse neurons. Perhaps the coolest part was that he did this all using R and Bioconductor, something 10X Genomics specifically advised against (for good reason, at the time). Oh, and he did it on a desktop with 8 GB of RAM. Aaron also gave an intro to his cryptically named beachmat package (slides). beachmat provides a unified C++ API for R matrix (and matrix-like) data structures. This will be very useful to package developers as they come to grips with providing algorithms that work for data stored in a variety of data structures, from simple in-memory matrix objects to file-backed data, such as data in the HDF5 format.

The use of alternative ‘matrix-like’ data structure was a common theme throughout the day, spurred in large part by the incredible work of Bioconductor core member, Hervé Pagès. Hervé gave an overview of the DelayedArray package and its companion, HDF5Array (slides). A DelayedArray plays a somewhat similar role to a tibble in the tidyverse: like how a tibble can essentially be an ordinary data frame but equally can be used to represent and operate on a more complex data structure such as a database table, a DelayedArray may be basically an ordinary array or can represent a more complex data structure such as data stored in an HDF5 file. I’ve been using these a lot in my own work and I’m really enjoying thinking about the possibilities of this idea.

Michael Lawrence, R core team member, gave a thought-provoking talk on the ‘Usability of Bioconductor Infrastructure’ (slides). I’ve had many years of benefiting from Bioconductor, but I do still remember the challenges in the early days of familiarising myself with the ecosystem and then in developing packages that integrate well with the core infrastructure. And that was despite having several years experience using R. Evidently, these challenges remain - many packages submitted to Bioconductor do not import or depend on any Bioconductor packages and, as a result, reinvent many a wheel, which has obvious downsides. Michael discussed strategies for improving the usability of Bioconductor infrastructure, again, drawing comparisons to the ‘tidyverse’, and reducing the cognitive load on both users and package developers.

After lunch, Davide Risso led a discussion on infrastructure for efficient storage and processing of large-scale single-cell genomics data (slides, notes, discussion). There has been a flurry of recent activity by Bioconductor developers on this topic, including the development of the SingleCellExperiment package that aims to provide a common S4 class for storing single-cell genomics data to improve interoperability between packages. Several of the key single-cell RNA-seq packages, including scater, scran, MAST, and zinbwave, have already made the switch thanks to the tireless work of their developers. The SingleCellExperiment class builds on the SummarizedExperiment class, a workhorse of Bioconductor, which brings immediate benefits, including the aforementioned cool work of DelayedArray, HDF5Array, and beachmat. Davide’s presentation also gave the opportunity for other users and developers to suggest improvements to the package, which are already being persued. It was also pointed out by Raphael Gottardo and others that the single-cell genomics community can learn a lot from the flow cytometry community who have been doing single-cell analyses for several years and have developed Bioconductor infrastructure to support this work.

Finally, scattered throughout the day we had a large number of 5-minute lightning talks. So many that I couldn’t even get to see them all! I love the lightning talk format: I think it appeals to my inner advertising guru / nightclub promoter. I presented ongoing work on a package called DelayedMatrixStats that aims to port the matrixStats API to support DelayedMatrix objects and derived objects. Amongst the other lightning talks, I was very excited that Lucas Schiffer has added the capability to use markdown on the Bioconductor support site. Another lightning talk that got me excited was by Lori Shepherd on BiocFileCache, a package to manage across sessions the common resource files, such as genomic annotations, that are costly or difficult to create (slides). Lori also highlighted the Bioconductor Docker containers and Amazon Machine Images (slides), as well as giving an introduction to package development (slides). And Nitesh Turaga pulled back the curtain on his mammoth task of transitioning the entire Bioconductor project from Subversion to git while preserving the complete history (slides).

All the presentations on Developer Day sparked many conversations that continued into the evening over dinner and drinks and on into the next two days of the main meeting. A huge thank you to the organisers for making this such a fun, educational, rewarding, and welcoming meeting. Looking forward to BioC2018!