BioAWK basics

Bioawk is an extension of the UNIX core utility command awk. It provides several features for biological data manipulation in a similar way as that of awk. This tutorial will give a brief introduction and examples for some common tasks that can be done with this command.

Bioawk is developed by Heng Li. You can download and install it from the Git repository. On Lightning3/Condo, it has already been installed, just load the bioawk module to start using it.


  • It can automatically recognize some popular formats and will parse different features associated with those formats. The format option is passed to bioawk using -carg flag. Here arg can be bed, sam, vcf, gff or fastx (for both fastq and FASTA). It can also deal with other types of table formats using the -c header option. When header is specified, the field names will used for variable names, thus greatly expanding the utility.
  • There are several builtin functions (other than the standard awk built-ins), that are specific to biological file formats. When a format is read with bioawk, the fields get automatically parsed. You can apply several functions on these variables to get the desired output. Let’s say, we read fasta format, now we have $name and $seq that holds sequence name and sequence respectively. You can use the print function (awk builtin) to print $name and $seq. You can also use bioawk built-in with the print function to get length, reverse complement etc by just using '{print length($seq)}'. Other functions include reverse, revcomp, trimq, and, or, xor etc.
  • It can automatically read gzipped/compressed files


  • -t to set input and output filed separator as tab
  • -cfmt to read and parse the file in desired format
  • -vvar=value initialize a variable and value [std to awk as well]
  • -H retain header in the output file (for files like SAM)
  • And all standard awk flags will work with bioawk

Variables for each format

For the -c you can either specify bed, sam, vcf, gff, fastx or header. Bioawk will parse these variables for the respective format

bed sam vcf gff fastx
chrom qname chrom seqname name
start flag pos source seq
end rname id feature qual
name pos ref start comment
score mapq alt end  
strand cigar qual score  
thickstart rnext filter filter  
thickend pnext info strand  
rgb tlen group    
blockcount seq attribute    
blocksizes qual      

If -c header is specified, the field names (first line) will be used as variables (spaces and special character will be changed to under_score).


1. For FASTA files

Once the input file is read, the defline for the FASTA will be $name variable and the sequence will be $seq variable. you can use any of the standard awk functions on these as well as the bioawk functions. Some_eg.,_

Get length for sequences

bioawk -c fastx '{ print $name, length($seq) }' input.fasta

Get %GC for sequences

bioawk -c fastx '{ print $name, gc($seq) }' input.fasta

Get reverse complement for all sequences

bioawk -c fastx '{ print ">"$name;print revcomp($seq) }' input.fasta
bioawk -c fastx 'length($seq) > 100{ print ">"$name; print $seq }'  input.fasta

Add a prefix/suffix to the sequence defline

bioawk -c fastx '{ print ">PREFIX"$name; $seq }' input.fasta
bioawk -c fastx '{ print ">"$name"|SUFFIX"; $seq }' input.fasta

Convert FASTA to tabular format

bioawk -t -c fastx '{ print $name, $seq }' input.fasta

Extract sequences based on ids in a file

#for large scale use cdbyank instead
bioawk -cfastx 'BEGIN{while((getline k <"IDs.txt")>0)i[k]=1}{if(i[$name])print ">"$name"\n"$seq}' input.fasta

These are just some examples, we can do many more with other standard awk functions.

2. For fastq files

Here, the -c fastx option remains same but bioawk will automatically recognize the fastq format and build the required variables, such as $name $seq $qual and $comment

Count the number of records (reads)

bioawk -t -c fastx 'END {print NR}' input.fastq
# note that when fastq is specified, each record is 4 lines

Convert fastq to FASTA

bioawk -c fastx '{print ">"$name; print $seq}' input.fastq

Get the mean Phred quality score from fastq

bioawk -c fastx '{print ">"$name; print meanqual($qual)}' input.fastq

Filter reads shorter than 10 bp (or any bp)

bioawk -cfastx 'length($seq) > 10 {print "@"$name"\n"$seq"\n+\n"$qual}' input.fastq

Trim fastq files based on quality

bioawk -c fastx ' trimq(30, 0, 5){print $0}' input.fastq
# trims fastq bases 0 to 5 (beginning to end), scores less than 30.

3. For BED files

bioawk -c bed '{ print $end - $start }' test.bed

4. For SAM files

Extract unmapped reads

bioawk -c sam 'and($flag,4)' input.sam

Extract mapped reads

bioawk -c sam -H '!and($flag,4)' input.sam

Create FASTA from SAM

bioawk -c sam '{ s=$seq; if(and($flag, 16)) {s=revcomp($seq) } print ">"$qname"\n"s}' input.sam > output.fasta

5. For VCF files

grep -v ^## in.vcf | bioawk -tc hdr '{print $foo,$bar}'

6. For GFF files

Will be added soon!

7. For other types of files

Say, if your input file is as follows:

name phone email age
Joe 6407 24
Doe 4506 26

List records less than 25 years age

bioawk -t -c header '$age < "25" {print $0}' input.txt

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