chemfp 1.3 documentation

chemfp is a set of tools for working with cheminformatics fingerprints in the FPS format.

This is the documentation for the no-cost version of chemfp. To see the documentation for the chemfp 3.1, the commercial version of chemfp, go to

Most people will use the command-line programs to generate and search fingerprint files. ob2fps, oe2fps, and rdkit2fps use respectively the Open Babel, OpenEye, and RDKit chemistry toolkits to convert structure files into fingerprint files. sdf2fps extracts fingerprints encoded in SD tags to make the fingerprint file. simsearch finds targets in a fingerprint file which are sufficiently similar to the queries.

The programs are built using the chemfp Python library API, which in turn uses a C extension for the performance critical sections. The parts of the library API documented here are meant for public use, and include examples.

Remember: chemfp cannot generate fingerprints from a structure file without a third-party chemistry toolkit.

Chemfp 1.3 was released on 18 September 2017. It supports Python 2.7 and can be used with any recent version of OEChem/OEGraphSim, Open Babel, or RDKit. Python 3 support is available in the commerical version of chemfp. If you are interested in paying for a copy, send an email to .

License and advertisement

This program was developed by Andrew Dalke <>, Andrew Dalke Scientific, AB. It is distributed free of charge under the “MIT” license, shown below.

Further chemfp development depends on funding from people like you. Asking for voluntary contributions almost never works. Instead, starting with chemfp 1.1, there are two development tracks. You can download and use the no-cost version or you can pay money to get access to the commercial version.

In both cases you get the software under the MIT license. I’ll stress that: even the commercial version of chemfp is open source software. Once you have a copy there are very few restrictions on what you can do with it. (The one exeception is we have signed a non-disclosure agreement which lets you evaluate the commercial version to decide if you want to pay for it.)

The current commercial version is 3.1. It can handle more than 4GB of fingerprint data, it supports the FPB binary fingerprint format for fast loading, it has an expanded API designed for web server development (for example, reading and writing from strings, not just files), and it supports both Python 2.7 and Python 3.5 or later.

If you pay for the commercial distribution then you will get the most recent version of chemfp, free upgrades for one year, support, and a discount on renewing participation in the incentive program.

If you have questions about or with to purchase the commercial distribution, send an email to .

Copyright (c) 2010-2017 Andrew Dalke Scientific, AB (Gothenburg, Sweden)

Permission is hereby granted, free of charge, to any person obtaining
a copy of this software and associated documentation files (the
"Software"), to deal in the Software without restriction, including
without limitation the rights to use, copy, modify, merge, publish,
distribute, sublicense, and/or sell copies of the Software, and to
permit persons to whom the Software is furnished to do so, subject to
the following conditions:

The above copyright notice and this permission notice shall be
included in all copies or substantial portions of the Software.


Copyright to portions of the code are held by other people or organizations, and may be under a different license. See the specific code for details. These are:

  • OpenMP, cpuid, POPCNT, and Lauradoux implementations by Kim Walisch, <>, under the MIT license
  • SSSE3.2 popcount implementation by Stanford Univeristy (written by Imran S. Haque <>) under the BSD license
  • heapq by the Python Software Foundation under the Python license
  • TimSort code by Christopher Swenson under the MIT License
  • tests/unittest2 by Steve Purcell, the Python Software Foundation, and others, under the Python license
  • chemfp/rdmaccs.patterns and chemfp/rdmaccs2.patterns by Rational Discovery LLC, Greg Landrum, and Julie Penzotti, under the 3-Clause BSD License
  • chemfp/ by Steven J. Bethard under the Apache License 2.0
  • chemfp/progressbar/ by Nilton Volpato under the LGPL 2.1 and/or BSD license
  • chemfp/futures/ by Brian Quinlan under the Python license

What’s new in 1.3

Released 18 September 2017

This release has dropped support for Python 2.5 and Python 2.6. It has been over 7 years since Python 2.7 was released, so if you’re using an older Python, perhaps it’s time to upgrade?

Toolkit changes

RDKit, OEGraphSim, Open Babel, and CDK did not implement MACCS key 44 (“OTHER”) because it wasn’t defined. Then Accelrys published a white paper which defined that term. All of the toolkits have updated their implementations. The corresponding chemfp fingerprint types are RDKit-MACCS166/2, OpenEye-MACCS166/3, and OpenBabel-MACCS/2. I have also updated chemfp’s own RDMACCS definitions to include key 44, and changed the versions from /1 to /2.

This release supports OEChem v2 and OEGraphSim v2 and drops support for OEGraphSim v1, which OpenEye replaced in 2010. It also drops support for the old OEBinary format.

Several years ago, RDKit changed its hash fingerprint algorithm. The new chemfp fingerprint type is “RDKit-Fingerprint/2”.

WARNING! In chemfp 1.1 the default for the RDKit-Fingerprint setting nBitsPerHash was 4. It should have been 2 to match RDKit’s own default. I have changed the default to 2, but it means that your fingerprints will likely change.

Chemfp now supports the experimental RDKit substructure fingerprint. The chemfp type name is “RDKit-Pattern”. There are four known versions. RDKit-Pattern/1 is many years old, RDKit-Pattern/2 was in place for several years up to 2017, RDKit-Pattern/3 was only in the 2017.3 release, and RDKit-Pattern/4 will be in the 2017.9 release. The corresponding rdkit2fps flag is --pattern.

RDKit has an adapter to use the third-party Avalon chemistry toolkit to create substructure fingerprints. Avalon support used to require special configuration but it’s now part of the standard RDKit build process. Chemfp now supports the Avalon fingerprints, as the type “RDKit-Avalon/1”. The corresponding rdkit2fps flag is --avalon.

Updated the #software line to include “chemfp/1.3” in addition to the toolkit information. This helps distinguish between, say, two different programs which generate RDKit Morgan fingerprints. It’s also possible that a chemfp bug can affect the fingerprint output, so the extra term makes it easier to identify a bad dataset.


The k-nearest arena search, which is used in NxM searches, is now parallelized.

The FPS reader is now much faster. As a result, simsearch for a single query (which uses –scan mode) is about 40% faster, and the time for chemfp.load_fingerprints() to create an areana is about 15% faster.

Similarity search performance for the MACCS keys, on a machine which supports the POPCNT instruction, is now about 20-40% faster, depending on the type of search.

Command-line tools

In chemfp 1.1 the default error handler for ob2fps, oe2fps, and rdkit2fps was “strict”. If chemfp detected that a toolkit could not parse a structure, it would print an error message and stop processing. This is not what most people wanted. They wanted the processing to keep on going.

This was possible by specifying the --errors values “report” or “ignore”, but that was extra work, and confusing.

In chemfp 1.3, the default --errors value is “ignore”, which means chemfp will ignore any problems, not report a problem, and go on to the next record.

However, if the record identifier is missing (for example, if the SD title line is blank), then this will be always be reported to stderr even under the “ignore” option. If --errors is “strict” then processing will stop if a record does not contain an identifier.

Added --version. (Suggested by Noel O’Boyle.)

The ob2fps --help now includes a description of the FP2, FP3, FP4, and MACCS options.


Deprecated read_structure_fingerprints(). Instead, call the new function read_molecule_fingerprints(). Chemfp 2.0 changed the name to better fit its new toolkit API. This change in chemfp 1.3 helps improve forward compatibility.

The module implements two functions to help with substructure fingerprint screening. The function contains_fp() takes a query fingerprint and finds all of the target fingerprints which contain it. (A fingerprint x “contains” y if all the on-bits in y are also on-bits in x.) The function contains_arena() does the same screening for each fingerprint in a query arena.

The new SearchResults.shape attribute is a 2-element tuple where the first is the size of the query arena and the second is the size of the target arena. The new SearchResults.to_csr() method converts the similarity scores in the SearchResults to a SciPy compressed sparse row matrix. This can be passed to some of the scikit-learn clustering algorithms.

Backported the FPS reader. This fixed a number of small bugs, like reporting the wrong record line number when there was a missing terminal newline. It also added some new features like a context manager.

Backported the FPS writer from Python 3.0. While it is not hard to write an FPS file yourself, the new API should make it even easier. Among other things, it understands how to write the chemfp Metadata as the header and it implements a context manager. Here’s an example of using it to find fingerprints with at least 225 of the 881 bits set and save them in another file:

import chemfp
from chemfp import bitops
with"pubchem_queries.fps") as reader:
  with chemfp.open_fingerprint_writer(
       "subset.fps", metadata=reader.metadata) as writer:
    for id, fp in reader:
      if bitops.byte_popcount(fp) >= 225:
        writer.write_fingerprint(id, fp)

The new FPS reader and writer, along with the chemistry toolkit readers, support the Location API as a way to get information about the internal state in the readers or writers. This is another backport from chemfp 3.0.

Backported bitops functions from chemfp 3.0. The new functions are: hex_contains(), hex_contains_bit(), hex_intersect(), hex_union(), hex_difference(), byte_hex_tanimoto(), byte_contains_bit(), byte_to_bitlist(), byte_from_bitlist(), hex_to_bitlist(), hex_from_bitlist(), hex_encode(), hex_encode_as_bytes(), hex_decode().

The last three functions related to hex encoding and decoding are important if you want to write code which is forward compatible for Python 3. Under Python 3, the simple fp.encode(“hex”) is no longer supported. Instead, use bitops.hex_encode(“fp”).

Note that the chemfp 1.x series is unlikely to become Python 3 compatible. For Python 3 support, consider purchasing a copy of chemfp 3.1.

Important bug fixes

Fix: As described above, the RDKit-Fingerprint nBitsPerHash default changed from 4 to 2 to match the RDKit default value.

Fix: Some of the Tanimoto calculations stored intermediate values as a double. As a result of incorrectly ordered operations, some Tanimoto scores were off by 1 ulp (the last bit in the double). They are now exactly correct.

Fix: if the query fingerprint had 1 bit set and the threshold was 0.0 then the sublinear bounds for the Tanimoto searches (used when there is a popcount index) failed to check targets with 0 bits set.

Fix: If a query had 0 bits then the k-nearest code for a symmetric arena returned 0 matches, even when the threshold was 0.0. It now returns the first k targets.

Fix: There was a bug in the sublinear range checks which only occurred in the symmetric searches when the batch_size is larger than the number of records and with a popcount just outside of the expected range.


The configuration of the –with-* or –without-* options (for OpenMP and SSSE3) support, can now be specified via environment variables. In the following, the value “0” means disable (same as “–without-*”) and “1” means enable (same as “–with-*”):

CHEMFP_OPENMP -  compile for OpenMP (default: "1")
CHEMFP_SSSE3  -  compile SSSE3 popcount support (default: "1")
CHEMFP_AVX2   -  compile AVX2 popcount support (default: "0")

This makes it easier to do a “pip install” directly on the tar.gz file or use chemfp under an automated testing system like tox, even when the default options are not appropriate. For example, the default C compiler on Mac OS X doesn’t support OpenMP. If you want OpenMP support then install gcc and specify it with the “CC”. If you don’t want OpenMP support then you can do:

CHEMFP_OPENMP=0 pip install chemfp-1.3.tar.gz


The chemfp code base is solid and in use at many companies, some of whom have paid for the commercial version. It has great support for fingerprint generation, fast similarity search, and multiple cheminformatics toolkits.

There are two tracks for improvements. Most of the new feature development is done in the commerical version of chemfp. I make my living in part by selling software, and few people will pay for software they can get for free.

The chemfp 1.x series is primarily in maintenance mode. I will track changes to the fingerprint types and add any new fingerprint types which might come along. I’ll also backport some of the features from the commercial version. For example, I expect chemfp 1.4 will include the text toolkit API from chemfp 2.1, and identifiers will be returned as Unicode strings instead of byte strings.

I will also accept contributions to chemfp. These must be under the MIT license or similarly unrestrictive license so I can include it in both the no-cost and commercial versions of chemfp.


In no particular order, the following contributed to chemfp in some way: Noel O’Boyle, Geoff Hutchison, the Open Babel developers, Greg Landrum, OpenEye, Roger Sayle, Phil Evans, Evan Bolton, Wolf-Dietrich Ihlenfeldt, Rajarshi Guha, Dmitry Pavlov, Roche, Kim Walisch, Daniel Lemire, Nathan Kurz, Chris Morely, Jörg Kurt Wegner, Phil Evans, Björn Grüning, Andrew Henry, Brian McClain, Pat Walters, Brian Kelley, and Lionel Uran Landaburu.

Thanks also to my wife, Sara Marie, for her many years of support.

Indices and tables