Understanding signaling and metabolic paths using semantified and harmonized information about biological interactions

Ryan A Miller*, Martina Kutmon, Anwesha Bohler, Andra Waagmeester, Chris T Evelo, Egon L Willighagen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


To grasp the complexity of biological processes, the biological knowledge is often translated into schematic diagrams of, for example, signalling and metabolic pathways. These pathway diagrams describe relevant connections between biological entities and incorporate domain knowledge in a visual format making it easier for humans to interpret. Still, these diagrams can be represented in machine readable formats, as done in the KEGG, Reactome, and WikiPathways databases. However, while humans are good at interpreting the message of the creators of diagrams, algorithms struggle when the diversity in drawing approaches increases. WikiPathways supports multiple drawing styles which need harmonizing to offer semantically enriched access. Particularly challenging, here, are the interactions between the biological entities that underlie the biological causality. These interactions provide information about the biological process (metabolic conversion, inhibition, etc.), the direction, and the participating entities. Availability of the interactions in a semantic and harmonized format is essential for searching the full network of biological interactions. We here study how the graphically-modelled biological knowledge in diagrams can be semantified and harmonized, and exemplify how the resulting data is used to programmatically answer biological questions. We find that we can translate graphically modelled knowledge to a sufficient degree into a semantic model and discuss some of the current limitations. We then use this to show that reproducible notebooks can be used to explore up- and downstream targets of MECP2 and to analyse the sphingolipid metabolism. Our results demonstrate that most of the graphical biological knowledge from WikiPathways is modelled into the semantic layer with the semantic information intact and connectivity information preserved. Being able to evaluate how biological elements affect each other is useful and allows, for example, the identification of up or downstream targets that will have a similar effect when modified.

Original languageEnglish
Article number0263057
Number of pages21
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • Algorithms
  • Biological Phenomena
  • Databases, Factual
  • Humans
  • Metabolic Networks and Pathways
  • Signal Transduction/physiology

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