EUtilities Web Service HOWTO


Using BioPerl to make and manage NCBI Entrez web service queries via the EUtilities SOAP service.

Also see the EUtilities Cookbook.


Mark A. Jensen

Fortinbras Research

maj -at- fortinbras -dot- us


The Entrez SOAP web service provided by NCBI promises to be more stable and efficient than CGI for programmatic access to NCBI databases. The publically accessible descriptions of request and response formats in the form of computable WSDL documents solidify and systematize the interface to the databases, making programs that depend on database access more reliable and maintainable. More complex data can be managed and computed because of the “contract” the WSDL provides with the user with respect to data organization and access protocols.

Because data access and management can be better systematized using a web service protocol like SOAP, the service can support more complex features and data organization, making it difficult for the developer initially to take advantage of the benefits of web services. Bio::DB::SoapEUtilities (SoapEU) is a system of modules designed to make Entrez SOAP access easy to incorporate into scripts and Perl one-liners, yet also provide enough hooks into the low-level interfaces to make more sophisticated code possible with a minimum of extra logic.

Dependencies and Installation

SoapEU is currently available in the bioperl-run repository, in the Bio::DB namespace.

SoapEU requires CPAN modules XML::Twig and SOAP::Lite, both of which are standard BioPerl core externals.


SoapEU is intended to provide all the functionality currently available in (see the EUtilities Cookbook for many examples and use cases). It provides an extensive and extensible backend for adapting the SOAP responses into appropriate and familiar BioPerl objects and iterators.

The mantra is

  1. create a Bio::DB::SoapEUtilities factory object;
  2. use the factory to select a utility (esearch, efetch, einfo, elink, esummary, egquery, epost, espell) and set its parameters;
  3. run the utility;
  4. iterate the result object, or access it for data.

A typical use case might be the following:

This is accomplished like so:

use Bio::DB::SoapEUtilities;
my $fac = Bio::DB::SoapEUtilities->new(); # step 1
my $seqio = $fac->esearch(
      -db => 'nucleotide',
      -term => 'HIV1 and CCR5 and Brazil'
   )->run(-auto_adapt => 1, -rettype => 'fasta'); # step 2, 3

while ( my $seq = $seqio->next_seq ) { # step 4
 # do something with $seq, a Bio::Seq object...


Browse below for useful code snippets.


To begin, make a factory:

my $fac = Bio::DB::SoapEUtilities->new();

From the factory, utilities are called, parameters are set, and results or adaptors are retrieved.

If you have your own copy of the wsdl, use

my $fac = Bio::DB::SoapEUtilities->new( -wsdl_file => $my_wsdl );

otherwise, the correct one will be obtained over the network (by Bio::DB::ESoap and friends).

Utilities and parameters

To run any of the standard NCBI EUtilities (einfo, esearch, esummary, elink, egquery, epost, espell), call the desired utility from the factory. To use a utility, you must set its parameters and run it to get a result. TMTOWTDI:

# verbose
my $fetch = $fac->efetch();
$fetch->set_parameters( -db => 'gene', -id => [828392, 790]);
my $result = $fetch->run;

# compact
my $result = $fac->efetch(-db =>'gene',-id => [828392,790])->run;

# change ids
$fac->efetch->set_parameters( -id => 470338 );
$result = $fac->run;

# another util
$result = $fac->esearch(-db => 'protein', -term => 'BRCA and human')->run;

# the utilities are kept separate
%search_params = $fac->esearch->get_parameters;
%fetch_params = $fac->efetch->get_parameters;
$search_param{db}; # is 'protein'
$fetch_params{db}; # is 'gene'

The factory is Bio::ParameterBaseI-compliant: that means you can find out what you can set with

@available_search = $fac->esearch->available_parameters;
@available_egquery = $fac->egquery->available_parameters;

For more information on parameters, see 1.


The “intermediate” object for SoapEU query results is the Bio::DB::SoapEUtilities::Result. This is a BioPerly parsing of the SOAP message sent by NCBI when a query is run(). This can be very useful on its own, but most users will likely want to proceed directly to Adaptors, which take a Result and turn it into more intuitive/familiar BioPerl objects. Go there if the following details are too gory.

Results can be highly- or lowly-parsed, depending on the parameters passed to the factory run() method. To get the raw XML message with no parsing, do

my $xml = $fac->$util->run(-raw_xml => 1); # $xml is a scalar string

To retrieve a Bio::DB::EUtilities::Result object with limited parsing, but with accessors to the SOAP::SOM message (provided by SOAP::Lite, do

my $result = $fac->$util->run(-no_parse => 1);
my $som = $result->som;
my $method_hash = $som->method; # etc...

To retrieve a Result object with message elements parsed into accessors, including count() and ids(), run without arguments:

my $result = $fac->esearch->run()
my $count = $result->count;
my @Count = $result->Count; # counts for each member of
                            # the translation stack
my @ids = $result->IdList_Id; # from automatic message parsing
@ids = $result->ids; # a convenient alias

See Bio::DB::EUtilities::Result for more, even gorier details.


Adaptors convert EUtility Results into convenient objects, via a handle that usually provides an iterator, in the spirit of Bio::SeqIO. These are probably more useful than the Result to the typical user, and so you can retrieve them automatically by setting the run() parameter -auto_adapt => 1.

In general, retrieve an adaptor like so:

$adp = $fac->$util->run( -auto_adapt => 1 );
# iterate...
while ( my $obj = $adp->next_obj ) {
   # do stuff with $obj

The adaptor itself occasionally possesses useful methods besides the iterator. The method next_obj always works, but a natural alias is also always available:

$seqio = $fac->esearch->run( -auto_adapt => 1 );
while ( my $seq = $seqio->next_seq ) {
   # do stuff with $seq

In the above example, -auto_adapt => 1 also instructs the factory to perform an efetch based on the ids returned by the esearch (if any), so that the adaptor returned iterates over Bio::SeqI objects.

Here is a rundown of the different adaptor flavors:

efetch, Fetch Adaptors, and BioPerl object iterators

The FetchAdaptor creates bona fide BioPerl objects.

Currently, there are FetchAdaptor subclasses for sequence data (both Genbank and FASTA rettypes) and taxonomy data. The choice of FetchAdaptor is based on information in the result message, and should be transparent to the user.

$seqio = $fac->efetch( -db =>'nucleotide',
                       -id => $ids,
                       -rettype => 'gb' )->run( -auto_adapt => 1 );
while (my $seq = $seqio->next_seq) {
   my $taxio = $fac->efetch(
	-db => 'taxonomy',
	-id => $seq->species->ncbi_taxid )->run(-auto_adapt => 1);
   my $tax = $taxio->next_species;
   unless ( $tax->TaxId == $seq->species->ncbi_taxid ) {
     print "more work for MAJ"

See the pod for the FetchAdaptor subclasses (e.g., Bio::DB::SoapEUtilities::FetchAdaptor::seq) for more detail.

Tip Use the fasta (a.k.a. TSeq in the WSDL) return type to avoid long wait times. This returns seq ids, sequence, and a few metadata items. The gb (a.k.a. GBSeq) return type will fetch all feature and annotation data by default.

To cut down (a little) on GenBank format parsing time, you may use the Bio::Seq::SeqBuilder system, as in Bio::SeqIO. This is somewhat advanced, but would look like this:

use Bio::DB::SoapEUtilities;

my @ids = qw(1621261 89318838 68536103 20807972 730439);
my $fac = Bio::DB::SoapEUtilities->new();
my $result = $fac->efetch( -db => 'protein',
			   -id => $ids )->run( -no_parse => 1 );
die "no result returned : ".$fac->errstr unless $result;
my $seqio = Bio::DB::SoapEUtilities::FetchAdaptor->new(-result => $result);
# clear all..
# add back just the annotation data (references, comments, dblinks, ...)
# print the pubmed ids for all references...
while ( my $seq = $seqio->next_seq ) {
    print join( "\n",
		map {
		} $seq->annotation->get_Annotations('reference'));

The LinkAdaptor manages LinkSets. In SoapEU, an elink call always preserves the correspondence between submitted and retrieved ids. The mapping between these can be accessed from the adaptor object directly as id_map():

my $links = $fac->elink( -db => 'protein',
                         -dbfrom => 'nucleotide',
                         -id => $nucids )->run( -auto_adapt => 1 );

# maybe more than one associated id...
my @prot_0 = $links->id_map( $nucids[0] );

Or iterate over the linksets:

while ( my $ls = $links->next_linkset ) {
   @ids = $ls->ids;
   @submitted_ids = $ls->submitted_ids;
   # etc.

esummary, the DocSum adaptor, and the docsum iterator

The DocSumAdaptor manages docsums, the esummary return type. The objects returned by iterating with a DocSumAdaptor have accessors that let you obtain field information directly. Docsums contain lots of easy-to-forget fields; use item_names() to remind yourself.

my $docs = $fac->esummary( -db => 'taxonomy',
                           -id => 527031 )->run(-auto_adapt=>1);
# iterate over docsums
while (my $d = $docs->next_docsum) {
   my @available_items = $d->item_names;
   # any available item can be called as an accessor
   # from the docsum your case...
   my $sci_name = $d->ScientificName;
   my $taxid = $d->TaxId;

egquery, the GQuery adaptor, and the query iterator

The GQueryAdaptor manages global query items returned by calls to egquery, which identifies all NCBI databases containing hits for your query term. The databases actually containing hits can be retrieved directly from the adaptor with found_in_dbs:

my $queries = $fac->egquery(
    -term => 'BRCA and human'
my @dbs = $queries->found_in_dbs;

Retrieve the global query info returned for any database with query_by_db:

my $prot_q = $queries->query_by_db('protein');
if ($prot_q->count) {
   #do something

Or iterate as usual:

while ( my $q = $queries->next_query ) {
   if ($q->status eq 'Ok') {
     # do sth

Web environments and query keys

To make large or complex requests for data, or to share queries, it may be helpful to use the NCBI WebEnv system to manage your queries. Each EUtility accepts the following parameters:


for this purpose. These store the details of your queries serverside.

SoapEU attempts to make using these relatively straightforward. Use Result objects to obtain the correct parameters, and don’t forget -usehistory:

my $result1 = $fac->esearch(
    -term => 'BRCA and human',
    -db => 'nucleotide',
    -usehistory => 1 )->run( -no_parse=>1 );

my $result = $fac->esearch(
    -term => 'AND early onset',
    -QueryKey => $result1->query_key,
    -WebEnv => $result1->webenv )->run( -no_parse => 1 );

my $result = $fac->esearch(
   -db => 'protein',
   -term => 'sonic',
   -usehistory => 1 )->run( -no_parse => 1 );

# later (but not more than 8 hours later) that day...

$result = $fac->esearch(
   -WebEnv => $result->webenv,
   -QueryKey => $result->query_key,
   -RetMax => 800 # get 'em all
   )->run; # note we're parsing the result...
@all_ids = $result->ids;

Error checking

Two kinds of errors can ensue on an Entrez SOAP run. One is a SOAP fault, and the other is an error sent in non-faulted SOAP message from the server. The distinction is probably systematic, and I would welcome an explanation of it. To check for result errors, try something like:

unless ( $result = $fac->$util->run ) {
   die $fac->errstr; # this will catch a SOAP fault
# a valid result object was returned, but it may carry an error
if ($result->count == 0) {
   warn "No hits returned";
   if ($result->ERROR) {
     warn "Entrez error : ".$result->ERROR;

Design Notes

The SoapEU system is designed to be as easy (few includes, available parameter facilities, reasonable defaults, intuitive aliases, built-in pipelines) or as complex (accessors for underlying low-level objects, all parameters accessible, custom hooks for builder objects, facilities for providing local copies of WSDLs) as the user requires or desires. To the extent that it does not succeed in either direction, ping the mailing list.

The middleware is provided by SOAP::Lite via the Bio::DB::ESoap package. See the POD there for details. The WSDL documents are parsed “by hand” (using XML::Twig in Bio::DB::ESoap::WDSL), to avoid adding a large number of new CPAN dependencies associated with existing packages. The WSDL module is pretty NCBI-specific, and may break if NCBI updates its specs. However, as much generality was included as possible to make it (and all the modules) shock-absorbent. The fact that the system is WSDL-based should in itself keep it pretty robust.

The adaptor system is really the heart of the (conceived) user-friendliness. It is complex under the hood in order to be transparent to the user – to provide familiar objects and accessors in one or two lines. However, all objects can be created explicitly and tweaked as desired:

use Bio::DB::SoapEUtilities;
use Bio::DB::SoapEUtilities::Result;
use Bio::DB::SoapEUtilities::DocSumAdaptor;

my $fac = Bio::DB::SoapEUtilities->new( -wsdl_file => my_wsdl.xml );
my $result = $fac->esummary(
                   -db => 'gene',
                   -id => 790 )->run( -no_parse => 1);

my $soap_lite_message = $result->som;

unless ( $soap_lite_message->fault ) {
  my $docs = Bio::DB::SoapEUtilities::DocSumAdaptor->new(
              -result => $result


use Bio::DB::SoapEUtilities;

# factory construction

my $fac = Bio::DB::SoapEUtilities->new()

# executing a utility call

#get an iteratable adaptor
my $links = $fac->elink(
              -dbfrom => 'protein',
              -db => 'taxonomy',
              -id => $protein_ids )->run(-auto_adapt => 1);

# get a Bio::DB::SoapEUtilities::Result object
my $result = $fac->esearch(
              -db => 'gene',
              -term => 'sonic and human')->run;

# get the raw XML message
my $xml = $fac->efetch(
            -db => 'gene',
            -id => $gids )->run( -raw_xml => 1 );

# change parameters
my $new_result = $fac->efetch(
                  -db => 'gene',
                  -id => $more_gids)->run;
# reset parameters
$fac->efetch->reset_parameters( -db => 'nucleotide',
                                -id => $nucid );
$result = $fac->efetch->run;

# parsing and iterating the results

$count = $result->count;
@ids = $result->ids;

while ( my $linkset = $links->next_link ) {
   $submitted = $linkset->submitted_id;

($taxid) = $links->id_map($submitted_prot_id);
$species_io = $fac->efetch( -db => 'taxonomy',
                            -id => $taxid )->run( -auto_adapt => 1);
$species = $species_io->next_species;
$linnaeus = $species->binomial;