Using the CDK from R

Rajarshi Guha


Using the CDK from R


Given that much of cheminformatics involves mathematical and statistical modeling of chemical information, R is a natural platform for such work. There are many cheminformatics applications that will generate useful information such as descriptors, fingerprints and so on. While one can always run these applications to generate data that is then imported into R, it can be convenient to be able to manipulate chemical structures and generate chemical information with the R environment.

The CDK is a Java library for cheminformatics that supports a wide variety of cheminformatics functionality ranging from reading molecular file formats, performing ring perception and aromaticity detection to fingerprint generation and molecular descriptors. The CDK website provides links to useful documentation as well as complete Javadocs

Getting started

The goal of the rcdk package is to allow an R user to access the cheminformatics functionality of the CDK from within R. While one can use the rJava package to make direct calls to specific methods in the CDK, from R, such usage does not usually follow common R idioms. Thus rcdk aims to allow users to use the CDK classes and methods in an R-like fashion.

The library is loaded as follows


We can also check the version of the CDK that is being used in the package

## [1] "2.8"

The package also provides an example data set, called bpdata which contains 277 molecules, in SMILES format and their associated boiling points (BP) in Kelvin. The data.frame has two columns, viz., the SMILES and the BP. Molecules names are used as row names:

## 'data.frame':    277 obs. of  2 variables:
##  $ SMILES: chr  "C(Br)(Cl)(Cl)Cl" "ClC(F)(F)F" "C(Cl)(Cl)(Cl)Cl" "C(F)(F)(F)F" ...
##  $ BP    : num  378 192 350 145 422 ...

Input and Output

Chemical structures come in a variety of formats and the CDK supports many of them. Many such formats are disk based and these files can be parsed and loaded by specifying their full paths

mols <- load.molecules( c('data1.sdf', '/some/path/data2.sdf') )

Note that the above function will load any file format that is supported by the CDK, so there’s no need to specify formats. In addition one can specify a URL (which should start with http://) to specify remote files as well. The result of this function is a list of molecule objects. The molecule objects are of class jobjRef (provided by the rJava package). As a result,they are pretty opaque to the user and are really meant to be processed using methods from the rcdk or rJava packages.

However, since it loads all the molecules from the specified file into a list, large files can lead to out of memory errors. In such a situtation it is preferable to iterate over the file, one structure at a time. Currently this behavior is supported for SDF and SMILES files. An example of such a usage for a large SD file would be

iter <- iload.molecules('verybig.sdf', type='sdf')
while(hasNext(iter)) {
 mol <- nextElem(iter)
 print(, "cdk:Title"))

Parsing SMILES

Another common way to obtain molecule objects is by parsing SMILES strings. The simplest way to do this is

smile <- 'c1ccccc1CC(=O)C(N)CC1CCCCOC1'
mol <- parse.smiles(smile)[[1]]

Usage is more efficient when multiple SMILE are supplied, since then a single SMILES parser object is used to parse all the supplied SMILES.

If you plan on parsing a large number of SMILES, you may run into memory issues, due to the large size of IAtomContainer objects. In such a case, it can be useful to call the Java and R garbage collectors explicitly at the appropriate time. In addition it can be useful to explicitly allocate a large amount of memory for the JVM. For example,

for (smile in smiles) {
    m <- parse.smiles(smile)
    ## perform operations on this molecule

Given a list of molecule objects, it is possible to serialize them to a file in some specified format. Currently, the only output formats are SMILES or SDF. To write molecules to a disk file in SDF format.

write.molecules(mols, filename='mymols.sdf')

By default, if mols is a list of multiple molecules, all of them will be written to a single SDF file. If this is not desired, you can write each on to individual files (which are prefixed by the value of filename):

 write.molecules(mols, filename='mymols.sdf', together=FALSE)

Generating SMILES

Finally, we can generate a SMILES representation of a molecule using

smiles <- c('CCC', 'c1ccccc1', 'CCCC(C)(C)CC(=O)NC')
mols <- parse.smiles(smiles)
## [1] "CCC"
unlist(lapply(mols, get.smiles))
##                  CCC             c1ccccc1   CCCC(C)(C)CC(=O)NC 
##                "CCC"        "C1=CC=CC=C1" "CCCC(C)(C)CC(=O)NC"

The CDK supports a number of flavors when generating SMILES. For example, you can generate a SMILES with or without chirality information or generate SMILES in Kekule form. The smiles.flavors generates an object that represents the various flavors desired for SMILES output. See the SmiFlavor javadocs for the full list of possible flavors. Example usage is

smiles <- c('CCC', 'c1ccccc1', 'CCc1ccccc1CC(C)(C)CC(=O)NC')
mols <- parse.smiles(smiles)
get.smiles(mols[[3]], smiles.flavors(c('UseAromaticSymbols')))
## [1] "CCc1ccccc1CC(C)(C)CC(=O)NC"
get.smiles(mols[[3]], smiles.flavors(c('Generic','CxSmiles')))
## [1] "CCC1=CC=CC=C1CC(C)(C)CC(=O)NC"

Using the CxSmiles flavors allows the user to encode a variety of information in the SMILES string, such as 2D or 3D coordinates.

m <- parse.smiles('CCC')[[1]]
m <- generate.2d.coordinates(m)
## [1] "Java-Object{AtomContainer(2143437117, #A:3, AtomRef{Atom(226744878, S:C, H:3, 2D:[(-1.299038105676659, 1.1102230246251565E-15)], AtomType(226744878, FC:0, Isotope(226744878, Element(226744878, S:C, AN:6))))}, AtomRef{Atom(172032696, S:C, H:2, 2D:[(-7.771561172376096E-16, 0.7500000000000007)], AtomType(172032696, FC:0, Isotope(172032696, Element(172032696, S:C, AN:6))))}, AtomRef{Atom(299644693, S:C, H:3, 2D:[(1.887379141862766E-15, 2.250000000000001)], AtomType(299644693, FC:0, Isotope(299644693, Element(299644693, S:C, AN:6))))}, #B:2, BondRef{Bond(260840925, #O:SINGLE, #S:NONE, #A:2, AtomRef{Atom(226744878, S:C, H:3, 2D:[(-1.299038105676659, 1.1102230246251565E-15)], AtomType(226744878, FC:0, Isotope(226744878, Element(226744878, S:C, AN:6))))}, AtomRef{Atom(172032696, S:C, H:2, 2D:[(-7.771561172376096E-16, 0.7500000000000007)], AtomType(172032696, FC:0, Isotope(172032696, Element(172032696, S:C, AN:6))))}, ElectronContainer(260840925EC:2))}, BondRef{Bond(1891502635, #O:SINGLE, #S:NONE, #A:2, AtomRef{Atom(172032696, S:C, H:2, 2D:[(-7.771561172376096E-16, 0.7500000000000007)], AtomType(172032696, FC:0, Isotope(172032696, Element(172032696, S:C, AN:6))))}, AtomRef{Atom(299644693, S:C, H:3, 2D:[(1.887379141862766E-15, 2.250000000000001)], AtomType(299644693, FC:0, Isotope(299644693, Element(299644693, S:C, AN:6))))}, ElectronContainer(1891502635EC:2))})}"
get.smiles(m, smiles.flavors(c('CxSmiles')))
## [1] "CCC"
get.smiles(m, smiles.flavors(c('CxCoordinates')))
## [1] "CCC |(-1.3,0,;-0,0.75,;0,2.25,)|"


The rcdk package supports 2D rendering of chemical structures. This can be used to view the structure of individual molecules or multiple molecules in a tabular format. It is also possible to view a molecular-data table, where one of the columns is the 2D image and the remainder can contain data associated with the molecules.

Due to Java event handling issues on OS X, depictions are handled using an external helper, which means that depiction generation can be slower on OS X compared to other platforms.

Molecule visualization is performed using the view.molecule.2d function. This handles individual molecules as well as a list of molecules. In the latter case, the depictions are arranged in a grid (with 4 columns by default).

smiles <- c('CCC', 'CCN', 'CCN(C)(C)',
mols <- parse.smiles(smiles)

The CDK depiction routines allow for extensive customization. These customizations can be accessed by creating a depictor object using get.depictor, which allows you to specify the size of the depiction, the depiction style (black and white, color on white, etc.), atom annotations (e.g., atom index), whether functional group abbreviations should be used or not and so on.

depictor <- get.depictor(style='cob', abbr='reagents', width=300, height=300)
view.molecule.2d(mols[[5]], depictor=depictor)

Once you have a depictor object, you can set individual properties using the $ notation. This can be useful if you plan to generate a lot of depictions so that a new depictor is not recreated for each new structure.

depictor <- get.depictor(style='cob', abbr='reagents', width=300, height=300)
view.molecule.2d(mols[[5]], depictor=depictor)
#view.molecule.2d(mols[[5]], depictor=depictor)

The method also allows you to highlight substructures using SMARTS. This is useful in highlight commen substructures in a set of molecules

depictor <- get.depictor(style='cob', abbr='reagents', sma='N(C)(C)')
view.molecule.2d(mols, depictor=depictor)

In many cases, it is useful to view a “molecular spreadsheet”, which is a table of molecular structures along with information (numeric or textual) related to the molecules being viewed. The data is arranged in a spreadsheet like manner, with one of the columns being molecules and the remainder being textual or numeric information.

This can be achieved using the view.table method which takes a list of molecule objects and a data.frame containing the associated data. As expected, the number of rows in the data.frame should equal the length of the molecule list. Note that currently, there is not explicit binding between the rows of the data.frame and the elements of the list containing the molecules. Thus the user should take care that the ordering of the data.frame matches that of the list.

smiles <- c('CCC', 'CCN', 'CCN(C)(C)','c1ccccc1Cc1ccccc1')
mols <- parse.smiles(smiles)
dframe <- data.frame(x = runif(4),
  toxicity = factor(c('Toxic', 'Toxic', 'Nontoxic', 'Nontoxic')),
  solubility = c('yes', 'yes', 'no', 'yes'))
view.table(mols, dframe)

While the view.molecule.2d function is useful to visualize structures, the depictions can’t be included in other visualizations such as plots. For such use cases, the view.image.2d function produces a raster image that can be included in plots. This function handles one molecule at a time.

img <- view.image.2d(parse.smiles("B([C@H](CC(C)C)NC(=O)[C@H](CC1=CC=CC=C1)NC(=O)C2=NC=CN=C2)(O)O")[[1]])
plot(1:10, 1:10, pch=19)
rasterImage(img, 1,6, 5,10)

Finally, the function allows you to copy a depiction to the system clipboard, from where it can be pasted into other applications. This can be more convenient than saving a raster image.

Manipulating Molecules

In general, given a jobjRef for a molecule object one can access all the class and methods of the CDK library via rJava. However this can be cumbersome. The rcdk package exposes methods and classes that manipulate molecules.

Adding Information to Molecules

In many scenarios it’s useful to associate information with molecules. Within R, you could always create a data.frame and store the molecule objects along with relevant information in it. However, when serializing the molecules, you want to be able to store the associated information with the structure itself (though keep in mind that only certain chemical file formats support metadata along with the structure).

Using the CDK it’s possible to directly add information to a molecule object using properties. Note that adding such properties uses a key-value paradigm, where the key should be of class character. The value can be of class integer, double, character or jobjRef. Obviously, after setting a property, you can get a property by its key.

mol <- parse.smiles('c1ccccc1')[[1]], "title", "Molecule 1"), "hvyAtomCount", 6), "title")
## [1] "Molecule 1"

It is also possible to get all available properties at once in the from of a list. The property names are used as the list names.
## $`cdk:Title`
## [1] NA
## $title
## [1] "Molecule 1"
## $hvyAtomCount
## [1] 6

After adding such properties to the molecule, you can write it out to an SD file, so that the property values become SD tags.

write.molecules(mol, 'tagged.sdf', write.props=TRUE)

Atoms and Bonds

Probably the most important thing to do is to get the atoms and bonds of a molecule. The code below gets the atoms and bonds as lists of jobjRef objects, which can be manipulated using rJava or via other methods of this package.

mol <- parse.smiles('c1ccccc1C(Cl)(Br)c1ccccc1')[[1]]
atoms <- get.atoms(mol)
bonds <- get.bonds(mol)
cat('No. of atoms =', length(atoms), '\n')
## No. of atoms = 15
cat('No. of bonds =', length(bonds), '\n')
## No. of bonds = 16

Given an atom the rcdk package does not offer a lot of methods to operate on it. One must access the CDK directly. In the future more manipulators will be added. Right now, you can get the symbol for each atom

unlist(lapply(atoms, get.symbol))
##  [1] "C"  "C"  "C"  "C"  "C"  "C"  "C"  "Cl" "Br" "C"  "C"  "C"  "C"  "C"  "C"

It’s also possible to get the 3D (or 2D coordinates) for an atom.

coords <- get.point3d(atoms[[1]])

Given this, it’s quite easy to get the 3D coordinate matrix for a molecule

coords <-'rbind', lapply(atoms, get.point3d))

Once you have the coordinate matrix, a quick way to check whether the molecule is flat is to do

if ( any(apply(coords, 2, function(x) length(unique(x))) == 1) ) {
    print("molecule is flat")
## [1] "molecule is flat"

This is quite a simplistic check that just looks at whether the X, Y or Z coordinates are constant. To be more rigorous one could evaluate the moments of inertia about the axes.

Substructure matching

The CDK library supports substructure searches using SMARTS (or SMILES) patterns. The implementation allows one to check whether a target molecule contains a substructure or not as well as to retrieve the atoms and bonds of the target molecule that match the query substructure. At this point, the rcdk only support the former operation - given a query pattern, does it occur or not in a list of target molecules. The matches method of this package returns a logical vector where the \(i\)’th element is TRUE if the \(i\)’th target molecules contains the query substructure. An example of its usage would be to identify molecules that contain a carbon atom that has exactly two bonded neighbors.

mols <- parse.smiles(c('CC(C)(C)C','c1ccc(Cl)cc1C(=O)O', 'CCC(N)(N)CC'))
query <- '[#6D2]'
matches(query, mols)
##          CC(C)(C)C.match c1ccc(Cl)cc1C(=O)O.match        CCC(N)(N)CC.match 
##                    FALSE                     TRUE                     TRUE

Molecular Descriptors

A key requirement for the predictive modeling of molecular properties and activities are molecular descriptors - numerical characterizations of the molecular structure. The CDK implements a variety of molecular descriptors, categorized into topological, constitutional, geometric, electronic and hybrid. It is possible to evaluate all available descriptors at one go, or evaluate individual descriptors.

First, we can take a look at the available descriptor categories.

dc <- get.desc.categories()
## [1] "protein"        "hybrid"         "constitutional" "topological"   
## [5] "electronic"     "geometrical"

Given the categories we can get the names of the descriptors for a single category. Of course, you can always provide the category name directly.

dn <- get.desc.names(dc[4])
##  [1] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.SmallRingDescriptor"                    
##  [2] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.FractionalPSADescriptor"                
##  [3] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.ZagrebIndexDescriptor"                  
##  [4] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.WienerNumbersDescriptor"                
##  [5] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.WeightedPathDescriptor"                 
##  [6] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.VAdjMaDescriptor"                       
##  [7] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.VABCDescriptor"                         
##  [8] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.TPSADescriptor"                         
##  [9] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.PetitjeanShapeIndexDescriptor"          
## [10] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.PetitjeanNumberDescriptor"              
## [11] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.MDEDescriptor"                          
## [12] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.KierHallSmartsDescriptor"               
## [13] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.KappaShapeIndicesDescriptor"            
## [14] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.HybridizationRatioDescriptor"           
## [15] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.FragmentComplexityDescriptor"           
## [16] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.FMFDescriptor"                          
## [17] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.EccentricConnectivityIndexDescriptor"   
## [18] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.ChiPathDescriptor"                      
## [19] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.ChiPathClusterDescriptor"               
## [20] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.ChiClusterDescriptor"                   
## [21] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.ChiChainDescriptor"                     
## [22] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.CarbonTypesDescriptor"                  
## [23] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.AutocorrelationDescriptorPolarizability"
## [24] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.AutocorrelationDescriptorMass"          
## [25] "org.openscience.cdk.qsar.descriptors.molecular.AutocorrelationDescriptorCharge"

Each descriptor name is actually a fully qualified Java class name for the corresponding descriptor. These names can be supplied to eval.desc to evaluate a single or multiple descriptors for one or more molecules.

aDesc <- eval.desc(mol, dn[4])
allDescs <- eval.desc(mol, dn)

The return value of eval.desc is a data.frame with the descriptors in the columns and the molecules in the rows. For the above example we get a single row. But given a list of molecules, we can easily get a descriptor matrix.

For example, let’s build a linear regression model to predict boiling points for the BP dataset. First we need a set of descriptors and so we evaluate all available descriptors. Also note that since a descriptor might belong to more than one category, we should obtain a unique set of descriptor names

descNames <- unique(unlist(sapply(get.desc.categories(), get.desc.names)))

For the current discussion we focus on a few, manually selected descriptors that we know will be related to boiling point.

mols <- parse.smiles(bpdata[,1])
descNames <- c(
descs <- eval.desc(mols, descNames)
## [1] "data.frame"
## [1] 277  81

When a descriptor value cannot be computed, it’s value is set to NA. This may happen if a descriptor requires 3D coordinates, but only 2D coordinates are available. In this case, we have manually selected descriptors such that there will be no undefined values.

Given the ubiquity of certain descriptors, some of them are directly available via their own functions. Specifically, one can calculate TPSA (topological polar surface area), AlogP and XlogP without having to go through eval.desc. (Note that AlogP and XlogP assume that hydrogens are explicitly specified in the molecule. This may not be true if the molecules were obtained from SMILES)

mol <- parse.smiles('CC(=O)CC(=O)NCN')[[1]]
## [1] 72.19
## [1] -0.883
## [1] -1.7019

Now that we have a descriptor matrix, we easily build a linear regression model. First, remove NA’s, correlated and constant columns. The code is shown below, but since it involves a stochastic element, we will not run it for this example. If we were to perform feature selection, then this type of reduction would have to be performed.

descs <- descs[, !apply(descs, 2, function(x) any( )]
descs <- descs[, !apply( descs, 2, function(x) length(unique(x)) == 1 )]
r2 <- which(cor(descs)^2 > .6, arr.ind=TRUE)
r2 <- r2[ r2[,1] > r2[,2] , ]
descs <- descs[, -unique(r2[,2])]

Note that the above correlation reduction step is pretty crude and there are better ways to do it. Given the reduced descriptor matrix, we can perform feature selection (say using leaps, caret or a GA to identify a suitable subset of descriptors. Given that we selected the descriptors by hand, we can skip this section, and directly build the model and generate a plot of predicted versus observed BP. (Note that this is a toy example and is not an example of good QSAR practice!)

model <- lm(BP ~ khs.sCH3 + khs.sF + apol + nHBDon, data.frame(bpdata, descs))
## Call:
## lm(formula = BP ~ khs.sCH3 + khs.sF + apol + nHBDon, data = data.frame(bpdata, 
##     descs))
## Residuals:
##     Min      1Q  Median      3Q     Max 
## -94.395 -20.911  -1.168  19.574 114.237 
## Coefficients:
##             Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|)    
## (Intercept) 267.3135     6.0006  44.548   <2e-16 ***
## khs.sCH3    -22.7948     2.0676 -11.025   <2e-16 ***
## khs.sF      -24.4121     2.6548  -9.196   <2e-16 ***
## apol          8.6211     0.3132  27.523   <2e-16 ***
## nHBDon       47.1187     3.7061  12.714   <2e-16 ***
## ---
## Signif. codes:  0 '***' 0.001 '**' 0.01 '*' 0.05 '.' 0.1 ' ' 1
## Residual standard error: 34.08 on 272 degrees of freedom
## Multiple R-squared:  0.837,  Adjusted R-squared:  0.8346 
## F-statistic: 349.1 on 4 and 272 DF,  p-value: < 2.2e-16
plot(bpdata$BP, predict(model, descs),
     xlab="Observed BP", ylab="Predicted BP",
     pch=19, xlim=c(100, 700), ylim=c(100, 700))
abline(0,1, col='red')


Fingerprints are a common representation used for a variety of purposes such as similarity searching and predictive modeling. The CDK provides a variety of fingerprints ranging from path-based hashed fingerprints to circular (specifically, an implementation fo the ECFP fingerprints) and signature fingerprints (based on the signature molecular descriptor). Some of the fingerprints are represented as binary strings and other by integer vectors. The rcdk employs the fingerprint package to support operations on the resultant fingerprints.

In this section, we present an example of using fingerprints to generate a hierarchical clustering of a set of molecules from the included boiling point dataset. We first parse the SMILES for the molecules in the dataset and then compute the fingerprints, specifying the circular type.

mols <- parse.smiles(bpdata[,1])
fps <- lapply(mols, get.fingerprint, type='circular')

With the fingerprints, we can then compute a pairwise similarity matrix using the Tanimoto metric. Since R’s hclust method requires a distance matrix, we convert the similarity matrix to a distance matrix

fp.sim <- fingerprint::fp.sim.matrix(fps, method='tanimoto')
fp.dist <- 1 - fp.sim

Finally, we can perform the clustering. In this case we use the hclust method though any of R’s clustering methods could be used.

cls <- hclust(as.dist(fp.dist))
plot(cls, main='A Clustering of the BP dataset', labels=FALSE)

Another common task for fingerprints is similarity searching. That is, given a collection of target molecules, find those molecules that are similar to a query molecule. This is achieved by evaluating a similarity metric between the query and each of the target molecules. Those target molecules exceeding a user defined cutoff will be returned. With the help of the fingerprint package this is easily accomplished.

For example, we can identify all the molecules in the BP dataset that have a Tanimoto similarity of 0.3 or more with acetalehyde, and then create a tabular summary. Note that this could also be accomplished with molecular descriptors, in which case you’d probably evaluate the Euclidean distance between descriptor vectors.

query.mol <- parse.smiles('CC(=O)')[[1]]
target.mols <- parse.smiles(bpdata[,1])
query.fp <- get.fingerprint(query.mol, type='circular')
target.fps <- lapply(target.mols, get.fingerprint, type='circular')
sims <- data.frame(, lapply(target.fps,
     fp2=query.fp, method='tanimoto')))
subset(sims, sim >= 0.3)
##                sim
## C(=O)O   0.3333333
## COC=O    0.3636364
## CCC=O    0.3636364
## CC(C)C=O 0.3636364