Formalising concepts of species, sex and developmental stage in anatomical ontologies

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Motivation: Anatomy ontologies have a growing role in bioinformatics—for example, in indexing gene expression data in model organisms. To relate or draw conclusions from data so indexed, anatomy ontologies must be equipped with the formal vocabulary that would allow statements about meronomy to be qualified by constraints such as part of the male or part at the embryonic stage. Lacking such a vocabulary, anatomists have built this information into the structure of the ontology or into anatomical terms. For example, in the FlyBase anatomy for drosophila, the term larval abdominal segment encodes the stage in the term, while the terms male genital disc and female genital disc encode the sex. It remains implicit that a fly has one and only one of these parts during its larval stage. Such indicators of context can and should be represented explicitly in the ontology.

Results: The framework we have defined for anatomical ontologies allows the canonical anatomy structures of a given species to be those common to all sexes, and to have either male, female or hermaphrodite parts—but not combinations of the latter. Temporal aspects of development are addressed by associating a stage with organism parts and requiring a connected anatomy to have parts that exist at a common stage. Both sex and anatomical stage are represented by attributes. This formalization clarifies ontological structure and meaning and increases the capacity for formal reasoning about anatomy. The framework also supports generalizations such as vertebrate and invertebrate, thereby allowing the representation of anatomical structures that are common across a sub-phylum.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2773-2779
Number of pages7
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 2005


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