BCFtools Tutorial

Overview of BCFtools

BCFtools is a powerful suite of utilities designed for the manipulation and analysis of variant call files in VCF (Variant Call Format) and BCF (Binary Call Format). These tools are essential for bioinformaticians and researchers working with genomic data, as they provide a wide range of functionalities to handle the complexities of variant calling.

What is BCFtools?

BCFtools is a set of command-line tools that allow users to work with genetic variant data. The software can handle both VCF files, which are plain text files, and BCF files, which are the binary equivalent of VCFs. BCFtools can work with both uncompressed and BGZF-compressed files, making it versatile and efficient for large-scale genomic analyses.

The tools within BCFtools are designed to work seamlessly with streams, meaning that input and output can be piped between commands, allowing for complex workflows to be constructed with ease. This stream-based design is particularly useful when working with large datasets, as it minimizes the need for intermediate files and reduces the overall computational footprint.

BCFtools is maintained by a team of developers, including Heng Li and Petr Danecek, and is part of the broader ecosystem that includes Samtools and HTSlib. The software is open-source, with contributions from a wide community of users who provide patches, report bugs, and assist with testing.

Key Features

  • Variant Calling: BCFtools includes commands for calling variants from sequence data, providing users with the ability to identify SNPs, indels, and other genetic variations.
  • File Manipulation: Users can concatenate, index, and merge VCF/BCF files, as well as convert between VCF and BCF formats.
  • Data Analysis: BCFtools offers a range of analysis tools, including options for filtering variants, generating statistics, and comparing different datasets.
  • Annotation: The software allows for the annotation of VCF/BCF files with additional information, which can be crucial for interpreting the biological significance of variants.
  • Plugins: BCFtools supports plugins, which extend its functionality even further. Users can list and utilize available plugins to perform specialized tasks.

Version Information

As of the last update on May 30, 2023, BCFtools is at git version 1.17-50-ga8249495+. It is important to note that BCFtools is under active development, and new features and improvements are regularly added to the software.

Community and Support

BCFtools has a strong community presence, with resources available on GitHub for bug reporting and feature requests. The developers encourage users to contribute to the project and provide feedback to help improve the software.


To install BCFtools, you will need to follow the instructions provided on the official BCFtools GitHub repository. The installation process typically involves downloading the source code, compiling the software, and installing it on your system. It is important to ensure that all dependencies, such as HTSlib, are also installed and properly configured.

Quick Start

Once BCFtools is installed, you can begin using it by executing commands in the terminal. A simple way to get started is to use the bcftools view command to inspect a VCF or BCF file. This command allows you to view the contents of the file, apply filters, and convert between VCF and BCF formats.

Code Examples Of Popular Commands

Here are five popular commands that you can use with BCFtools:

  1. bcftools view: View, filter, and convert VCF/BCF files.
  2. bcftools merge: Merge multiple VCF/BCF files into a single file.
  3. bcftools index: Index a VCF/BCF file to enable random access.
  4. bcftools stats: Generate statistics about variant calls in a VCF/BCF file.
  5. bcftools annotate: Add or remove annotations from a VCF/BCF file.

Each of these commands comes with a variety of options and parameters that allow you to tailor the behavior to your specific needs. The BCFtools manual and online documentation provide detailed information on how to use these commands effectively.

In conclusion, BCFtools is an indispensable toolset for anyone working with genomic variant data. Its comprehensive range of features, combined with the support of a vibrant community, makes it a go-to choice for bioinformatics workflows. Whether you are calling variants, analyzing data, or preparing files for publication, BCFtools has the capabilities to support your work.