rBLAST: R Interface for the Basic Local Alignment Search Tool

Michael Hahsler and Anurag Nagar

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Note: BLAST was not installed when this vignette was built. Some output is not available in this vignette!


This package provides an R interface to use a local installation of the Basic Local Alignment Search Tool (BLAST) executable. This allows the user to download BLAST databases for querying or to create their own database from sets of sequences. The interface integrates BLAST search directly with the Bioconductor infrastructure by using the XStringSet (e.g., RNAStringSet) from the package Biostrings.

This package complements the function in blastSequences() in package annotate that runs a BLAST query not locally but by connecting to the NCBI server.

System requirements

The BLAST+ software needs to be installed on your system. Installation instructions are available in this package’s INSTALL file and at .

R needs to be able to find the executable. After installing the software, try in R


If the command returns "" instead of the path to the executable, then you need to set the environment variable called PATH. In R

Sys.setenv(PATH = paste(Sys.getenv("PATH"),
   "path_to_your_BLAST_installation", sep=.Platform$path.sep))


Use an existing database

You can download pretrained databases from NCBI at https://ftp.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/blast/db/. Here we download the 16S rRNA database. To avoid multiple downloads of the same file, we use BiocFileCache in function blast_db_cache for download. The database compressed and needs to be expanded.

## download the 16S Microbial rRNA data base from NCBI
tgz_file <- blast_db_get("16S_ribosomal_RNA.tar.gz")
untar(tgz_file, exdir = "16S_rRNA_DB")

The extracted database consists of a folder with a set of database files.


Next, we open the database for querying using the blast() function which returns a BLAST database object.

bl <- blast(db = "./16S_rRNA_DB/16S_ribosomal_RNA")

To demonstrate how to query the database, we read one sequence from an example FASTA file that is shipped with the package. Queries are performed using the predict() function. The result is a data.frame with one row per match. We will show the first 5 matches.

seq <- readRNAStringSet(system.file("examples/RNA_example.fasta",
    package = "rBLAST"

cl <- predict(bl, seq)
cl[1:5, ]

Additional arguments for BLAST can be passed on using the BLAST_args parameter for predict(). The output format can be specified using custom_format. In the following, we specify a custom format and that the sequences need to have 99% identity. See the BLAST Command Line Applications User Manual for details (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279690/).

fmt <- paste(
    "qaccver saccver pident length mismatch gapopen qstart qend",
    "sstart send evalue bitscore qseq sseq"
cl <- predict(bl, seq,
    BLAST_args = "-perc_identity 99",
    custom_format = fmt

Create a custom BLAST database

The makeblastdb utility can be used to create a BLAST database from a FASTA file with sequences. The package provides an R interface function of the same name. As an example, we will create a searchable database from a sequence FASTA file shipped with the package.

seq <- readRNAStringSet(system.file("examples/RNA_example.fasta",
    package = "rBLAST"
#> RNAStringSet object of length 5:
#>     width seq                                               names               

First, we write a FASTA file that will be used by blast to create the database.

writeXStringSet(seq, filepath = "seqs.fasta")

Next, we create a BLAST database from the file. We need to specify that the sequences contains RNA and thus nucleotides.

makeblastdb("seqs.fasta", db_name = "db/small", dbtype = "nucl")

Note that it is convenient to specify a folder and a name separated by a / to organize all index files in a folder.

We can now open the database and use it for queries.

db <- blast("db/small")

Check if it finds a 100 nucleotide long fragment from the first sequence in the training data.

fragment <- subseq(seq[1], start = 101, end = 200)

predict(db, fragment)

We see that the found sequence ID (ssequid) matches the query sequence ID (qsequid) and that it matches the correct region in the sequence (see sstart and send).

To permanently remove a database, the folder can be deleted.

unlink("db", recursive = TRUE)


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