Background: Phenotype ontologies are queryable classifications of phenotypes. They provide a widely-used means for annotating phenotypes in a form that is human-readable, programatically accessible and that can be used to group annotations in biologically meaningful ways. Accurate manual annotation requires clear textual definitions for terms. Accurate grouping and fruitful programatic usage require high-quality formal definitions that can be used to automate classification. The Drosophila phenotype ontology (DPO) has been used to annotate over 159,000 phenotypes in FlyBase to date, but until recently lacked textual or formal definitions.
Results: We have composed textual definitions for all DPO terms and formal definitions for 77% of them. Formal definitions reference terms from a range of widely-used ontologies including the Phenotype and Trait Ontology (PATO), the Gene Ontology (GO) and the Cell Ontology (CL). We also describe a generally applicable system, devised for the DPO, for recording and reasoning about the timing of death in populations. As a result of the new formalisations, 85% of classifications in the DPO are now inferred rather than asserted, with much of this classification leveraging the structure of the GO. This work has significantly improved the accuracy and completeness of classification and made further development of the DPO more sustainable.
Conclusions: The DPO provides a set of well-defined terms for annotating Drosophila phenotypes and for grouping and querying the resulting annotation sets in biologically meaningful ways. Such queries have already resulted in successful function predictions from phenotype annotation. Moreover, such formalisations make extended queries possible, including cross-species queries via the external ontologies used in formal definitions. The DPO is openly available under an open source license in both OBO and OWL formats. There is good potential for it to be used more broadly by the Drosophila community, which may ultimately result in its extension to cover a broader range of phenotypes.