The semantic web depends on the use of ontologies to let electronic systems interpret contextual information. Optimally, the handling and access of ontologies should be completely transparent to the user. As a means to this end, we have developed a service that attempts to bridge the gap between experts in a certain knowledge domain, ontologists, and application developers. The ontology-based answers (OBA) service introduced here can be embedded into custom applications to grant access to the classes of ontologies and their relations as most important structural features as well as to information encoded in the relations between ontology classes. Thus computational biologists can benefit from ontologies without detailed knowledge about the respective ontology. The content of ontologies is mapped to a graph of connected objects which is compatible to the object-oriented programming style in Java. Semantic functions implement knowledge about the complex semantics of an ontology beyond the class hierarchy and "partOf" relations. By using these OBA functions an application can, for example, provide a semantic search function, or (in the examples outlined) map an anatomical structure to the organs it belongs to. The semantic functions relieve the application developer from the necessity of acquiring in-depth knowledge about the semantics and curation guidelines of the used ontologies by implementing the required knowledge. The architecture of the OBA service encapsulates the logic to process ontologies in order to achieve a separation from the application logic. A public server with the current plugins is available and can be used with the provided connector in a custom application in scenarios analogous to the presented use cases. The server and the client are freely available if a project requires the use of custom plugins or non-public ontologies. The OBA service and further documentation is available at http://www.bioinf.med.uni-goettingen.de/projects/oba.
Keywords: OBA; ontology; ontology-based answers; semantic function.