Searching biological databases from the Firefox search bar

There is currently no “Google for Bioinformatics“, and so biologists/bioinformaticians typically need to search a number of separate databases to find the data the desire. While the Biobar Firefox extension helps search for a dizzying array of biological databases (individually), I think sometimes it offers too much, and contains too many databases that I rarely if ever use. As useful as it is, most of the time I keep the Biobar toolbar hidden to reclaim the screen real-estate.

Instead, I prefer the more lightweight “search plugins” to fully fledged extentions (accessed via the little search box up near the URL location bar). Here are some Firefox search plugins for common ‘bioinformatic’ search engines which I found scattered across the far reaches of the web:

  • HubMed is a clean and slick interface to search the PubMed database, with some features that the NCBI search doesn’t have. You may already be familiar with it, but sadly the majority of life scientists appear not to know about it / use it. I prefer HubMed to the regular NCBI Entrez interface. You can install the HubMed Firefox search plugin at HubMed.
  • In case you want the plain vanilla NCBI PubMed interface, the UCSF library provides a PubMed search plugin.
  • The Mycroft project by Mozilla seems to be an official repository of firefox search plugins. On Mycroft, I found plugins for searching SwissProt, the Protein Data Bank (PDB).

I also wanted some that couldn’t find, so I made them. Here are Firefox search plugins for Uniprot and Pfam:

Here is the code for the Pfam one, as an example:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<OpenSearchDescription xmlns=""
<description>Search the Pfam database</description>
<url type="text/html" method="GET" template="">
<param name="terms" value="{searchTerms}">

To add this to your list of search engines, you also need to put the appropriate “link” tag in the head of an html page that you want the search plugin to be detected from, like this:

<link rel="search" href="opensearch_uniprot.xml"
title="Uniprot" />
<link rel="search" href="opensearch_pfam.xml"
title="Pfam" />

OpenSearch plugins are also partially supported by some versions of Internet Explorer, but I haven’t tested it (there is no POST support for OpenSearch plugins in IE 7). [insert obligatory Firefox fanboy stab at IE here].

Chances are, you’d like to make one to search your favorite database. Here is the documentation I used for creating OpenSearch plugins for Firefox:

Edit: Argghh .. looks like this code is showing up fine on the web page, but is a bit broken when displayed from the RSS feed in akregator .. I assume other feed readers may also be having trouble .. Anyone know a reliable way to post code in Blogger ? WordPress is starting to look attractive …

4 thoughts on “Searching biological databases from the Firefox search bar

  1. Just a note to say that it looks ok in Google Reader. I get the same feeling about Blogger. It is aways behind the curve.

  2. I can’t see why you want separate search plugins for each database? The nice thing about Biobar is that you can customize it your self, just remove or add any database that can be formulated as a web-address.

  3. Mostly it’s about screen real-estate (every little toolbar on a 15″ laptop screen adds up to very little space for actual content). I still use Biobar, but I leave it hidden most of the time and use the opensearch box for the databases I most frequently search, and only open Biobar for the ones I rarely use.

    One idea for a new Biobar feature that could solve this issue …. an option to simply add any of the database searches in Biobar to the default Firefox search box. This would solve the screen real-estate problem and provide a much easier way to add search engines without the need for fiddling with opensearch plugin code directly. Note sure if this is easy/possible, but it would be nice.

    (Incidently, when you say “customize Biobar”, do you mean editing BiobarGroups.xml and/or BiobarSearch.xml inside biobar.jar, or is there a way to do it from within the running extension itself which I haven’t discovered ?)

  4. You can edit BiobarSearch.xml as a text file and just save it in your profile directory. You can add any database you can formulate as a web address.

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