Regular Expressions 101

Regular expressions are a standardized way of describing patterns in textual data. They can be extremely useful for tasks such as finding and replacing data. They can be a bit tricky to master, but learning even just a few of the basics can help you get the most out of Galaxy.


Below are just a few examples of basic expressions:

Regular expression Matches
abc an occurrence of abc within your data
(abc|def) abc or def
[abc] a single character which is either a, b, or c
[^abc] a character that is NOT a, b, nor c
[a-z] any lowercase letter
[a-zA-Z] any letter (upper or lower case)
[0-9] numbers 0-9
\d any digit (same as [0-9])
\D any non-digit character
\w any alphanumeric character
\W any non-alphanumeric character
\s any whitespace
\S any non-whitespace character
. any character
{x,y} between x and y repetitions
^ the beginning of the line
$ the end of the line

Note: you see that characters such as *, ?, ., + etc have a special meaning in a regular expression. If you want to match on those characters, you can escape them with a backslash. So \? matches the question mark character exactly.


Regular expression matches
\d{4} 4 digits (e.g. a year)
chr\d{1,2} chr followed by 1 or 2 digits
.*abc$ anything with abc at the end of the line
^$ empty line


Sometimes you need to capture the exact value you matched on, in order to use it in your replacement, we do this using capture groups (...), which we can refer to using \1, \2 etc for the first and second captured values.

Regular expression Input Captures
chr(\d{1,2}) chr14 \1 = 14
(\d{2}) July (\d{4}) 24 July 1984 \1 = 24, \2 = 1984

An expression like s/find/replacement/g indicates a replacement expression, this will search (s) for any occurrence of find, and replace it with replacement. It will do this globally (g) which means it doesn’t stop after the first match.

Example: s/chr(\d{1,2})/CHR\1/g will replace chr14 with CHR14 etc.

Note: In Galaxy, you are often asked to provide the find and replacement expressions separately, so you don’t have to use the s/../../g structure.

There is a lot more you can do with regular expressions, and there are a few different flavours in different tools/programming languages, but these are the most important basics that will already allow you to do many of the tasks you might need in your analysis.

Tip: RegexOne is a nice interactive tutorial to learn the basics of regular expressions.

Tip: is a great resource for interactively testing and constructing your regular expressions, it even provides an explanation of a regular expression if you provide one.

Tip: Cyrilex is a visual regular expression tester.

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