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Datathon 2019: Hack your DNA

PMI Science and Enterprise Incubator Foundation (EIF) jointly with ISTC Foundation, and Bioinformatics Group (BIG) of the Institute of Molecular Biology NAS Armenia are launching a “Hack the DNA Datathon” on Dec 1-12 2019, with the aim to promote genomics field of studies and bring this exceptional opportunity to the Armenian scientific community.

The Datathon will provide a task in the field of aging and cancer research. The proposed solutions should provide tools for more efficient use of yeast genomic data that will facilitate studies on the role of telomeres in cancer.

Why should one be the part?

If you are a machine learning, data science or bioinformatics expert and are willing to test your skills, learn new techniques and dive deep into the genomics field.

You can also:

– Learn about a very exciting and growing field of research;
– Receive an independent assessment of your methods;
– Connect with your peers and grow your professional network;
– Meet worldwide experts.

🏆 The winners of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd places will receive prizes with the respective amount of $1500, $1000 and $500

The Schedule 

Nov 27 – InfoSession 6:30 at ISTC
Nov 30
– Deadline for the registration
Dec 2 – Hands-on Workshop with the field experts
Dec 10 – Deadline for the submission
Dec 12 – Award Ceremony

Until the submission deadline, 3 days of office hours will be provided to the teams by and BIG specialists. Teams can also use ISTC servers and facilities to work on their projects.

Anyone with an interest in sequencing data analysis in general, or in telomeric
research can participate: simply registering before the deadline Nov 30.

The goal of the yeast telomeres (YT) challenge is to classify strings of a given length (a.k.a. reads) into two categories: telomeric and non-telomeric.

The reads have the following characteristics:

  • They have defined length (from 75 to 300, but constant for the given case).
  • They are derived from the {A,G,C,T,N} dictionary.

The rules defining a telomeric reads are:

  • They largely consist of telomeric motifs
  • A telomeric motif is defined by the rule: (TG){1,7}GGTGTG(G)?
  • The beginning of the string may lack telomeric motifs
  • With small frequency, the motifs may be separated by one-two letters
  • The motifs may have errors: substitution (replacement of one character with another from the dictionary {A,G,C,T,N}), insertion (a novel character in-between motif characters) or deletion (removal of one character)

For example, the following string is a telomeric one:


Below is the break-down of the string into motifs defined within curly brackets. The sub-motifs are within round brackets, while the errors are in square brackets:


Other strings may appear to be half-telomeric, with the telomeric part starting after several characters:



Challenge question

Given a set of telomeric and non-telomeric reads, determine the nature of each of the reads and submit the cumulative length of the telomeric reads as your answer. The length is computed with a formula provided in the data description document.

Challenge data

Several datasets, with varying numbers of telomeric and non-telomeric reads and with different lengths will be provided. The number of reads in each dataset will be on the order of 20.000. The true cumulative length telomeric reads in each dataset will be known a priory. After prediction of cumulative length from several datasets, the accuracy will be determined with the adjusted R squared value of correlation between known and estimated lengths and the root mean squared error. This is a competitive challenge: the accuracy of submissions will be used to determine the winning solution.

Please visit the data description page for more details and examples.

Biology: why is this interesting?

In 1961 Leonard Hayflick, a professor at Standford, discovered an interesting phenomenon. He isolated human cells and grew them in a dish, and to his surprise he noticed that the cells wouldn’t live forever: they would divide at most 50-60 times and then would stop dividing and die. Even more intriguing was the fact that cancer cells could live forever, with indefinite number of divisions.

Only ten years after this discovery, it became clear what makes our cells tick. The secret to cellular aging lied in DNA.

Every living cell has a DNA. The DNA is a long double-stranded chain of four different types of molecules (nucleotides or bases) denoted as A, G, C or T, which store the genetic information. The middle parts of each linear chromosome contain information that is used by the cell to produce anything it needs for performing its everyday tasks. One of these tasks is division and tissue renewal. You loose old skin cells everyday, and those are replaced with new once. If you drink alcohol you loose liver cells, and those are fortunately replaced with new ones. Unfortunately, these renewal processes are declining as we age, with our skin being less elastic, and our liver – less flexible to our habits: all because our cells age and do not divide anymore. Why?

Because before each division the cell replicates its DNA to deliver two copies to the two daughter cells. Howevver, the cell fails to make copies of the very ends of DNA. Can you imagine what would happen if these ends coded for some essential proteins? Fortunately, the ends of DNA are just stretches of repetitive sequences, called the telomeres. Before each cellular division the tip of the telomeric DNA is lost, and when the telomeres become too short, the cell stops dividing. Telomeres are protecting our DNA like the tips of the shoelaces protect the shoelace from breaking apart.

What about cancer cells? Well these cells can make their telomeres longer! That is why many drugs are now being developed to shorten cancer telomeres and stop tumor growth. What if a person’s telomeres grow too short? Well, this is also a problem: check out the movie Jack, starring Robin Williams, about guy that suffers from a premature aging syndrome: at his 13 years he looks like 40 years old – all because of problems with telomeres.

How long are the telomeres?

The sequence of human chromosomes is built up of consecutive repeats of the form: TTAGGG. These repeats concatenated in one telomeric region may span around 10.000 bases. For your comparison, all the human DNA altogether contains around 3bln bases of DNA.

Yeast telomeres

Yeast are unicellular fungi. They are frequently used in baking to make the dough soft and porous. Besides being useful in the kitchen, they are also great model organisms used by biologists in their laboratories. Even though yeast are not similar to us by their looks, the basic molecular events and processes largely resemble those in human cells. Therefore, studying telomeres in yeast will provide clues on how to control telomere length in humans too.

The telomeres in yeast, have a not so strictly defined repeat pattern. It is a motif of the form: (TG){1,7}GGTGTG(G)?. Concatenate multiple repeats like this (to the length of around 300 bases), each time choosing to repeat (TG) 1-to-7 times and either adding G at the end or not, and you’ll get the sequence of yeast telomeres.

How are the telomeres studied?

Usually, expensive experimental procedures are involved. Most of the techniques involve chemicals that bind to telomeres and emit light, allowing to assess the length of telomeres. These techniques are first of all expensive and time consuming. Secondly, not many labs have performed telomere length measurement during their experiments. Therefore, there is not much data on telomere length coupled with other interesting characteristics.

On the other hand, people nowadays are talking about huge amounts of genomic (or DNA-sequencing data). These datasets reach petabytes in size and are mostly freely available through public databases. Our aim is to leave the expensive experiments behind and re-use the freely available DNA-sequencing data to study telomeres!

DNA sequencing

DNA sequencing is the process of obtaining or reading the sequence of bases in a DNA strand. The second generation of sequencing machines does it by randomly shearing the DNA molecules (of length 75-250 bases on average), and reading those sequences. The readings are called sequencing reads. The main problem of sequencing datasets is that the origin of the reads is no known, so one has to identify their origin by complicated bioiformatics algorithms. Telomeric sequences pose particular problems, as they are of repetitive nature.

This challenge will help to easily classify reads derived from the telomeric DNA regions from sequencing datasets, and thus to compute the length of telomeres. All in all, your solution will be a real contribution to the field of bioiformatics and telomere biology! Have fun!

*make sure to submit the document with  “NAME_OF_THE_PROJECT.fastq” format