Working with SBML using Scala


The Systems Biology Markup Language (SBML) is an XML-based format for representation and exchange of biochemical network models. SBML is supported by most systems biology modelling tools, allowing the export of a model in SBML from one tool and then reading in another tool. Because it offers a standard way of representing biochemical networks in an unambiguous way, it can also be used as the standard way of representing models in databases of biochemical network models, such as BioModels. I haven’t talked about SBML much in this blog, so far, but I discuss it in detail in my book, Stochastic modelling for systems biology. SBML is a “good thing”, and everyone who works with (deterministic or stochastic) biochemical network models should know a bit about it.

The SBML format is fairly complex to parse and generate correctly, so it’s preferable to use a software library to take care of the details. libSBML is the community standard library developed for this purpose. It is a C++ library, but has interfaces for other languages, such as Python and Java. However, whilst it’s perfectly possible to use native libraries on the JVM, they aren’t so convenient to work with, especially in conjunction with modern automatic build and deployment tools. So when working on the JVM, a pure JVM library for working with SBML would be a lot more convenient. JSBML is exactly that – a pure Java library for working with SBML on the JVM. As of version 1.2, it is also available from Maven Central, making it super-convenient to use with modern build tools such as Maven and sbt. In this post I’ll walk through getting started with using Scala and sbt to build and run a trivial JSBML example, and highlight a couple of gotchas and provide pointers for further reading.

Using JSBML from Scala sbt projects

Dependencies in sbt

Since JSBML is now on Maven Central, adding a dependency on it should just be a matter of adding the line

libraryDependencies += "org.sbml.jsbml" % "jsbml" % "1.2"

to your sbt build.sbt file. However, for slightly mysterious reasons this doesn’t quite work. It works fine for compilation, but at runtime some dependencies are missing. I suspect this is a slight problem with the current JSBML build, but it could also be a bug/feature in sbt. Either way, the problem can be solved by explicitly including log4j dependencies in the build. So just adding:

libraryDependencies ++= Seq(
		"org.sbml.jsbml" % "jsbml" % "1.2",
		"org.apache.logging.log4j" % "log4j-1.2-api" % "2.3",
		"org.apache.logging.log4j" % "log4j-api" % "2.3",
		"org.apache.logging.log4j" % "log4j-core" % "2.3"

to the build file is sufficient to make everything work properly.

Example Scala program

Below is a complete Scala program to read an SBML file from disk and print to console some very basic information about the model.

object JsbmlApp {
  import org.sbml.jsbml.SBMLReader
  import scala.collection.JavaConversions._

  def main(args: Array[String]): Unit = {
    val filename = if (args.length == 0)
      "ch07-mm-stoch.xml" else args(0)
    val reader = new SBMLReader
    val document = reader.readSBML(filename)
    val model = document.getModel
    println(model.getId + "\n" + model.getName)
    val listOfSpecies = model.getListOfSpecies
    val ns = model.getNumSpecies
    println(s"$ns Species:")
    listOfSpecies.iterator.foreach(species => {
      println("  " +
        species.getId + "\t" +
        species.getName + "\t" +
        species.getCompartment + "\t" +
    val nr = model.getNumReactions
    println(s"$nr Reactions.")


There are just a few things worth noting about this simple example. The first gotcha is to try and resist the temptation to import all SBML classes into the namespace (with import org.sbml.jsbml._). This is poor programming practice at the best of times, but here it is especially problematic. Scala programmers will be aware that Unit is a very important type in the Scala language, which has nothing to do with the JSBML class Unit, which represents a physical unit of measurement. The clash can be avoided by using the fully qualified name, org.sbml.jsbml.Unit wherever the JSBML Unit class is intended, but that is rather cumbersome, so the typical Scala mechanism for dealing with this is to rename the class on import, using, for example:

import org.sbml.jsbml.{ Unit => JsbmlUnit }

Then in code it is clear that Unit refers to the Scala type and JsbmlUnit refers to the JSBML class.

Also note that JavaConversions has been imported. This provides an implicit conversion from a Java to a Scala iterator, and this simplifies iterating over SBML listOfs. Here it is used it to implicitly convert the listOfSpecies Java iterator into a Scala iterator so that I can call foreach on it.

Further reading

This complete runnable example is available in my blog repo on github. This example will run on any system with a recent JVM installed. It does not require Scala, or libSBML, or JSBML, or any other dependency (sbt will take care of dependency resolution).

Once you are up and running with a simple example like this, the JSBML Documentation is fine. Start by reading the User guide and then use the API Documentation.


Working with SBML in Scala is quite convenient using JSBML. It is easy to include a dependence on JSBML in Scala sbt projects. JSBML has a typical Java Object-Oriented API that is somewhat unnatural in Scala, but isn’t too bad using a few tricks, such as implicit iterator conversion. It wouldn’t be very difficult to layer a more functional API on top of JSBML, but I don’t have the energy to do that. See my blog repo for the full runnable example.


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I am Professor of Statistics within the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Durham University, UK. I am an Bayesian statistician interested in computation and applications, especially to engineering and the life sciences.

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