Chimera's Object Model


Provide an introduction to the Chimera's object model.


The first step to programming in the Chimera environment is to understand its object model. Chimera uses a hierarchy of objects to represent actual chemical components - atoms, bonds, residues, and so on. Most of Chimera is written in Python, an easy-to-learn, strongly object-oriented scripting language. The use of Python (for flexibility) in combination with C++ (for speed) has led to a highly structured, yet easily navigable, object model that simulates all the chemical components necessitated by a full-featured, intelligent molecular modeling system.
This example will provide a foundation for some of the more complicated programming examples by explaining both the makeup of Chimera's objects and their relationship to one another.

The accompanying image illustrates the general relationship between some of Chimera's fundamental objects - Atoms, Bonds, Residues, and Molecules. While this diagram shows several attributes for each object, some attributes have been left out for the sake of simplicity. Only the attributes that are discussed in this tutorial (the basics, and therefore, in some sense the most important) have been shown. You can always do a


in Chimera's IDLE window (essentially a Python interpreter built in to Chimera) to see documentation for all the contents of any Chimera object. The attributes associated with these objects can be divided into roughly two categories: those that contain chemical/structural information (e.g. Molecule.atoms or Atom.idAtmType) and those that control the visual representation of the data (e.g. Molecule.color and Atom.drawMode). The following example will demonstrate the use of attributes in the first category. A discussion of those in the second category is saved for another example.

Note on semantics for the following examples:
  • In general, anything written in this font (fixed width) is referring specifically to some element of code.
  • There is sometimes a need to talk specifically about either an instance of an object, or its class. To distinguish between these two situations, lowercase is used to refer to an instance ("atom") and uppercase is used to refer to the class ("Atom"). If the reference to an object is not written in this font, then the implication is obvious enough and/or there is no need to make this distinction.
  • When discussing the color of a component, there can be some confusion differentiating between the color an object appears to be (how it appears on the screen), and what is assigned to that object's color attribute (on the programmatic level). "color" will be used when referring to the former, and "color" will be used in dealing with the latter. Example: "Due to Chimera's color hierarchy, the color of an atom (the color it appears to be) may not always reflect its color attribute (the color assigned to that atom in the code)"
  • Unlike Atoms and Bonds, Residues are not actually visible in and of themselves. It is only when they are drawn as ribbons that they are visible in a model. Thus, when residue color or display is mentioned in the following discussion, it is actually referring to the color/display of the ribbon portion which represents that residue.

Examples in this guide are typically laid out as a downloadable link to a Python script followed by a line-by-line explanation of the script. You may want to read through the explanation in its entirety, or look through the script and refer back to the detailed explanation for the parts you don't understand.

To execute the script, either open the script file with the File→Open menu item or with the open command.


Import Chimera modules used in this example.
import chimera

First, we'll open up a model to work with. This molecule (4fun) is very small, comprised of just a couple residues, but it is perfect for illustrating some important components of Chimera's object model. For more information on how to open/close models in Chimera, see the "Basic Model Manipulation" Example in the Programmer's Guide (coming soon). For now, just understand that this code opens up any molecules stored in the file 4fun.pdb and returns a list of references to opened models. (Put 4fun.pdb on your desktop or change the path in the command below.)
opened ='~/Desktop/4fun.pdb')

Because only one molecule was opened, opened is a list with just one element. Get a reference to that element (which is a Molecule instance) and store it in mol
mol = opened[0]

Now that we have a molecule to work with, an excellent way of examining its data structures is to flatten it out and write it to a file. We'll write this file in the mol2 format, a free-format ascii file that describes molecular structure. It is not necessary to have any prior knowledge of the mol2 format to understand this example, just a basic comprehension of file formats that use coordinate data. Check out the finished product. It should serve as a good reference while you're going through the example. Get a reference to a file to write to:
f = open("4fun.mol2", 'w')

mol2 uses a series of Record Type Indicators (RTI), that indicate the type of structure that will be described in the following lines. An RTI is simply an ASCII string which starts with an asterisk (@), followed by a string of characters, and is terminated by a new line. Here, we define some RTI's that we will use througout the file to describe the various parts of our model:


The chimera2sybyl dictionary is used to map Chimera atom types to Sybyl atom types. See section below on writing out per-atom information.
chimera2sybyl = {

'C3' : 'C.3', 'C2' : 'C.2', 'Car' : '', 'Cac' : 'C.2',
'C1' : 'C.1', 'N3+' : 'N.4', 'N3' : 'N.3', 'N2' : 'N.2',
'Npl' : 'N.pl3', 'Ng+' : 'N.pl3', 'Ntr' : 'N.2', 'Nox' : 'N.4',
'N1+' : 'N.1', 'N1' : 'N.1', 'O3' : 'O.3', 'O2' : 'O.2',
'Oar' : 'O.2', 'O3-' : 'O.co2', 'O2-' : 'O.co2', 'S3+' : 'S.3',
'S3' : 'S.3', 'S2' : 'S.2', 'Sac' : 'S.O2', 'Son' : 'S.O2',
'Sxd' : 'S.O', 'Pac' : 'P.3', 'Pox' : 'P.3', 'P3+' : 'P.3',
'HC' : 'H', 'H' : 'H', 'DC' : 'H', 'D' : 'H',
'P' : 'P.3', 'S' : 'S.3', 'Sar' : 'S.2', 'N2+' : 'N.2'

Writing Out per-Molecule Information

The "<TRIPOS>MOLECULE" RTI indicates that the next couple of lines will contain information relevant to the molecule as a whole. First, write out the Record Type Indicator (RTI):
f.write("%s\n" % MOLECULE_HEADER)

The next line contains the name of the molecule. This can be accessed through the attribute. (Remember, mol is a reference to the molecule we opened). If the model you open came from a pdb file, name will most often be the name of the file (without the .pdb extension). For this example, is "4fun".
f.write("%s\n" %

Next, we need to write out the number of atoms, number of bonds, and number of substructures in the model (substructures can be several different things; for the sake of simplicity, the only substructures we'll worry about here are residues). This data is accessible through attributes of a molecule object: mol.atoms, mol.bonds, and mol.residues all contain lists of their respective components. We can determine how many atoms, bonds, or residues this molecule has by taking the len of the appropriate list. save the list of references to all the atoms in mol:
ATOM_LIST = mol.atoms

save the list of references to all the bonds in mol:
BOND_LIST = mol.bonds

save the list of references to all the residues in mol:
RES_LIST = mol.residues

f.write("%d %d %d\n" % ( len(ATOM_LIST), len(BOND_LIST), len(RES_LIST)) )

type of molecule

indicate that no charge-related information is available


Writing Out per-Atom Information

Next, write out atom-related information. In order to indicate this, we must first write out the atom RTI:
f.write("%s\n" % ATOM_HEADER)

Each line under the ATOM RTI consists of information pertaining to a single atom. The following information about each atom is required: an arbitrary atom id number, atom name, x coordinate, y coordinate, z coordinate, atom type, id of the substructure to which the atom belongs , name of the substructure to which the atom belongs.

You can look at each atom in the molecule by looping through its atoms attribute. Remember, ATOM_LIST is the list of atoms stored in mol.atoms. It's more efficient to get the list once, and assign it to a variable, then to repeatedly ask for mol.atoms.
for atom in ATOM_LIST:

Now that we have a reference to an atom, we can write out all the necessary information to the file. The first field is an arbitrary id number. We'll just use that atom's index within the mol.atoms list.
f.write("%d " % ATOM_LIST.index(atom) )

Next, we need the name of the atom, which is accessible via the name attribute.
f.write("%s " %

Now for the x, y, and z coordinate data. Get the atom's xformCoord object. This is essentially a wrapper that holds information about the coordinate position (x,y,z) of that atom. xformCoord.x, xformCoord.y, and xformCoord.z store the x, y, and z coordinates, respectively, as floating point integers. This information comes from the coordinates given for each atom specification in the input file
coord = atom.xformCoord()
f.write("%g %g %g " % (coord.x, coord.y, coord.z) )

The next field in this atom entry is the atom type. This is a string which stores information about the chemical properties of the atom. It is accessible through the idatmType attribute of an atom object. Because Chimera uses slightly different atom types than SYBYL (the modeling program for which .mol2 is the primary input format), use a dictionary called chimera2sybyl (defined above) that converts Chimera's atom types to the corresponding SYBYL version of the atom's type.
f.write("%s " % chimera2sybyl[atom.idatmType])

The last two fields in an atom entry pertain to any substructures to which the atom may belong. As previously noted, we are only interested in residues for this example. Every atom object has a residue attribute, which is a reference to the residue to which that atom belongs.
res = atom.residue

Here, we'll use for the substructure id field. is a string which represents a unique id for that residue (a string representation of a number, i.e. "1" , which are sequential, for all the residues in a molecule).
f.write("%s " %

The last field to write is substructure name. Here, we'll use the type attribute of res. the type attribute contains a string representation of the residue type (e.g. "HIS", "PHE", "SER"...). Concatenate onto this the residue's id to make a unique name for this substructure (because it is possible, and probable, to have more than one "HIS" residue in a molecule. This way, the substructure name will be "HIS6" or "HIS28")
f.write("%s%s\n" % (res.type, )


Writing Out per-Bond Information

Now for the bonds. The bond RTI says that the following lines will contain information about bonds.
f.write("%s\n" % BOND_HEADER)

Each line after the bond RTI contains information about one bond in the molecule. As noted earlier, you can access all the bonds in a molecule through the bonds attribute, which contains a list of bonds.
for bond in BOND_LIST:

each bond object has an atoms attribute, which is list of length 2, where each item in the list is a reference to one of the atoms to which the bond connects.
a1, a2 = bond.atoms

The first field in a mol2 bond entry is an arbitrary bond id. Once again, we'll just use that bond's index in the mol.bonds list
f.write("%d " % BOND_LIST.index(bond) )

The next two fields are the ids of the atoms which the bond connects. Since we have a reference to both these atoms (stored in a1 and a2), we can just get the index of those objects in the mol.atoms list:
f.write("%s %s " % (ATOM_LIST.index(a1), ATOM_LIST.index(a2)) )

The last field in this bond entry is the bond order. Chimera doesn't currently calcuate bond orders, but for our educational purposes here, this won't be a problem. The mol2 format expects bond order as a string: "1" (first-order), "2" (second-order), etc., so just write out "1" here (even though this may not be correct).


Writing Out per-Residue Information

Almost done!!! The last section contains information about the substructures (i.e. residues for this example) You know the drill:
f.write("%s\n" % SUBSTR_HEADER)

We've already covered some of these items (see above):
for res in RES_LIST:

residue id field
f.write("%s " % )

residue name field
f.write("%s%s " % (res.type, )

the next field specifies the id of the root atom of the substructure. For the case of residues, we'll use the alpha-carbon as the root. Each residue has an atomsMap attribute which is a dictionary. The keys in this dictionary are atom names (e.g. C, N, CA), and the values are lists of references to atoms in the residue that have that name. So, to get the alpha-carbon of this residue:
alpha_carbon = res.atomsMap['CA'][0]

and get the id of alpha_carbon from the mol.atoms list
f.write("%d " % ATOM_LIST.index(alpha_carbon) )

The final field of this substructure entry is a string which specifies what type of substructure it is:


And that's it! Don't worry if you didn't quite understand all the ins and outs of the mol2 file format. The purpose of this exercise was to familiarize yourself with Chimera's object model; writing out a mol2 file was just a convenient way to do that. The important thing was to gain an understanding of how Chimera's atoms, bonds, residues, and molecules all fit together.

Display Properties

The goal of any molecular modeling system is to enable researchers to visualize their data. Equally important as the attributes that describe chemical structure, are those that control how the structures are actually represented on-screen. In fact, an extensive object model is worthless unless the objects can be represented in a suitable manner! The display of Chimera's core objects is governed by a few key concepts:

Color Hierarchy

Chimera uses a hierarchical system to color fundamental chemical components. This hierarchy is composed of two levels: 1) individual atoms/bonds/residues and 2) the model as a whole. The color assigned to an individual atom/bond/residue will be visible over the color assigned to the model as a whole. When a model is initially opened, each atom/bond/residue color is set to None, and the model-level color is determined by a configurable preference (by default, Chimera automatically assigns a unique model-level color to each new molecule that is opened). Because all the components' (atoms/bonds/residues) color attributes are initially set to None, they (visually) inherit their color from the model-level color. However, setting any particular atom's color, or issuing a command such as 'color blue' (which is the same as setting each individual atom's color to blue) will result in the model appearing blue (because either of those actions affect an individual atoms' color, which takes visual precedence over the model-level color). See here for more information.

Display Hierarchy

Each of Chimera's objects has an attribute which determines if it is displayed (visible) or not. For atoms, bonds, and molecules this is called display, while residues have a ribbonDisplay attribute (residues are represented visually as ribbons). A value of True means that the component is displayed, while False means it is not displayed. An atom/bond/residue will only be displayed if the model to which it belongs is displayed. This means that even if an atom/bond/residue's respective display attribute is set to True, if the molecule to which that atom belongs is undisplayed (i.e. the molecule's display is set to False), then that atom/bond/residue will still not be visible. See here for more information.

Draw Modes

Each Chimera object can be drawn in one of several representations ('draw modes'), specific to that object. atoms and bonds each have an attribute named drawMode that controls this characteristic, while residues' (because they are represented as ribbons) corresponding attribute is called ribbonDrawMode. The value of this attribute is a constant which corresponds to a certain type of representation specific to that object. For example, chimera.Atom.Dot, chimera.Atom.Sphere, chimera.Atom.EndCap and chimera.Atom.Ball are constants that each define a different draw mode for atoms. There is a different set of constants that define draw modes for bonds and residues (see below for more information).


import chimera

open up a molecule to work with:
opened ='3fx2', type="PDB")
mol = opened[0]

Molecule Display Properties

the color attribute represents the model-level color. This color can be controlled by the midas command modelcolor. The color assigned to a newly opened model is determined by a configurable preference (see discussion above). Programmatically, the model color can be changed by simply assigning a MaterialColor to molecule.color. Molecules also have a display attribute, where a value of True corresponds to being displayed, and a value of False means the molecule is not displayed. So to make sure the molecule is shown (it is by default when first opened):
mol.display = True

To color the molecule red, get a reference to Chimera's notion of the color red (returns a MaterialColor object)
from chimera.colorTable import getColorByName
red = getColorByName('red')

and assign it to mol.color.
mol.color = red

Note that the model will appear red at this point because all the atoms/bonds/residues color attributes are set to None

Atom Display Properties

Each atom in a molecule has its own individual color, accessible by the color attribute. Upon opening a molecule, each atom's color is set to None; it can be changed by assigning a new MaterialColor to atom.color. So, if we wanted to color all the alpha-carbon atoms blue, and all the rest yellow, get references to the colors:
blue = getColorByName('blue')
yellow = getColorByName('yellow')

get a list of all the atoms in the molecule
ATOMS = mol.atoms
for at in ATOMS:

check to see if this atom is an alpha-carbon
if == 'CA':

at.color = yellow
at.color = blue

Now, even though mol.color is set to red, the molecule will appear to be blue and yellow. This is because each individual atom's color is visible over mol.color.

Like molecules, atoms also have a display attribute that controls whether or not the atom is shown. While atom.display controls whether the atom can be seen at all, atom.drawMode controls its visual representation. The value of drawMode can be one of four constants, defined in the Atom class. Acceptable values for drawMode are chimera.Atom.Dot (dot representation), chimera.Atom.Sphere (sphere representation), chimera.Atom.EndCap (endcap representation), or chimera.Atom.Ball (ball representation). So, to represent all the atoms in the molecule as "balls":
for at in ATOMS:

at.drawMode = chimera.Atom.Ball

Bond Display Properties

Bonds also contain color, and drawMode attributes. They serve the same purposes here as they do in atoms (color is the color specific to that bond, and drawMode dictates how the bond is represented). drawMode for bonds can be either chimera.Bond.Wire (wire representation) or chimera.Bond.Stick (stick representation). The bond.display attribute accepts slightly different values than that of other objects. While other objects' display can be set to either False (not displayed) or True (displayed), bond.display can be assigned a value of chimera.Bond.Never (same as False - bond is not displayed), chimera.Bond.Always (same as True - bond is displayed), or chimera.Bond.Smart which means that the bond will only be displayed if both the atoms it connects to are displayed. If not, the bond will not be displayed. The heuristic that determines bond color is also a little more complicated than for atoms. Bonds have an attribute called halfbond that determines the source of the bond's color. If halfbond is set to True, then the bond derives its color from the atoms which it connects, and ignores whatever bond.color is. If both those atoms are the same color (blue, for instance), then the bond will appear blue. If the bonds atoms are different colors, then each half of the bond will correspond to the color of the atom on that side. However, if bond.halfbond is set to False, then that bond's color will be be derived from its color attribute, regardless of the colors of the atoms which it connects (except in the case bond.color is None, the bond will derive its color from one of the atoms to which it connects). To set each bond's display mode to "smart", represent it as a stick, and turn halfbond mode on, get a list of all bonds in the molecule
BONDS = mol.bonds
for b in BONDS:

b.display = chimera.Bond.Smart
b.drawMode = chimera.Bond.Stick
b.halfbond = True

Residue Display Properties

Residues are not "displayed" in the same manner that atoms and bonds are. When residues are displayed, they are in the form of ribbons, and the attributes that control the visual details of the residues are named accordingly: ribbonDisplay, ribbonColor, ribbonDrawMode. The values for ribbonDrawMode can be chimera.Residue.Ribbon_2D (flat ribbon), chimera.Residue.Ribbon_Edged (sharp ribbon), or chimera.Residue.Ribbon_Round (round/smooth ribbon). If a residue's ribbonDisplay value is set to False, it doesn't matter what ribbonDrawMode is - the ribbon still won't be displayed! Residues have three attributes that control how the ribbon is drawn. isTurn, isHelix, and isSheet (same as isStrand) are set to either True or False based on secondary structure information contained in the source file (if available). For any residue, only one of these can be set to True. So, to display only the residues which are part of an alpha-helix, as a smooth ribbon, get a list of all the residues in the molecule
RESIDUES = mol.residues
for r in RESIDUES:

only for residues that are part of an alpha-helix
if r.isHelix:

r.ribbonDisplay = True
r.ribbonDrawMode = chimera.Residue.Ribbon_Round
This leaves us with a very colorful (if a little scientifically useless) model!!