Organization of Relations into Domain Modules

One of the first things a user may notice on browsing RO is it contains a number of highly specific relations particular to sub-domains of science. This can be disconcerting, especially as (for logical reasons), the hierarchies can be mingled. For example, sub-relations of generic relations 'part of' or 'precedes' include specific neuroanatomical relations mixed with environmental relations.

In general, typical users would not be exposed to this variety: a neuroanatomist should consume a RO module intended specifically for neuroanatomy. This section deals with how RO is organized into domains, and how these modules are extracted.


RO imports a handful of portions of other ontologies, primarily in order to specify domain and range constraints.

In practice, some external ontologies are not properly imported: portions of the ontologies are copied directly into RO. This is something we will resolve in future (TODO tracker link).

RO uses BFO classes as an upper level ontology; this is imported from the RO-core module (next section):

We currently support two overlapping mechanisms to partition RO into modules according to application or domain.

  • Grouping relations
  • Subsets

Grouping relations are OPs (Object Properties) that form the root of a property hierarchy including the desired properties. For example, 'developmentally related to' ( groups all OPs used to specify developmental relationships between two structures.

All such grouping relations should be tagged with a 'curator note' property describing the intent of the grouping, and warning not to use the OP in logical assertions.

There are some objections to grouping OPs. Philosophically there are objections that the OP does not represent a true relationship in the world. However, in practice there are no negative consequences of this philosophical infelicity - the OP can simply be ignored. A more serious objection may be that the presence of these relations can slow down reasoning. If this turns out to be a problem we may find another strategy.

Despite these objections, grouping relations are undeniably convenient for browsing in an ontology browser like Protege.

With the grouping strategy, all subproperties are included in the group. Sometimes it is desirable to cherry pick certain OPs independently of the subProperty hierarchy. Here we explicitly assert membership in a group.

Currently this is done using the 'in subset' AP (AnnotationProperty) from the OiO vocabulary. This may be changed to IAO in future, but for now use of this vocabulary has advantages for mapping to obo format and making use of OORT to build releases - subset files are generated as part of the release process.

Currently we only have a single subset, ro-eco, but we will add more later, e.g. for RONeuro. One possibility is to have an editor in charge of the content of each module (or at least representing a community of stakeholders).

The current version of RO includes both general and specific relations from multiple domains. This is not ideal for many users, who typically require a small subset of these.

Dividing into domain-specific modules

One approach would be to divide the RO into a collection of domain-specific modules - for each ro-neuro, ro-developmental-biology, etc. These modules could import one another where appropriate, and a parent ro ontology could import everything.

We decided against this at this stage, since it will difficult to tell a-priori which were sensible divisions. There are many ways to partition into mutually exclusive sets - by upper level (e.g. process-process relations vs process-continuant) or by domain. Many domains overlap.

We may still pre-modularize the relations at some stage in the future, but for now they are organized as a single ontology (or rather as two: with the core relations in BFO and derived and domain specific relations in RO)

Extracting Modules

As the RO is not modularized in advanced, it would be useful for users to have ways to extract the modules they need.

Automatic Module Extraction

There are a number of ways to automatically extract a module from an ontology - the OWLAPI implements some of these.

You can use the OWLTools command line facility to access the OWLAPI and it's modularization capabilities.

Using 'develops from' as a seed using the TOP strategy:

 owltools  ro.owl --extract-module -m TOP 'develops from' -o file://`pwd`/ro-subset-part-of.owl

Using 'part of' and 'has part' and all their descendant relations:

 owltools  ro.owl --extract-module -m STAR 'has part' 'part of' -o file://`pwd`/ro-subset-part-of.owl

Getting the right module requires an understanding of the modularization algorithm which is non-trivial - particularly where this interacts with ShortcutRelations - in future we will provide a more intuitive high-level modularization capability.

Manual Module Extraction

Another method is to manually take the properties and/or related axioms one requires and copy them into the working ontology. This technique is not ideal, but the operation is relatively infrequent since most ontologies do not use large numbers of relations. This is the method that has been used in practice for GO, the drosophila anatomy, Uberon, etc.

See OBOFormatUsersGuide for details