BAM format specification for PacBio

The BAM format is a binary, compressed, record-oriented container format for raw or aligned sequence reads. The associated SAM format is a text representation of the same data. The specifications for BAM/SAM are maintained by the SAM/BAM Format Specification Working Group.

PacBio-produced BAM files are fully compatible with the BAM specification. In this document we describe the way we make use of the extensibility mechanisms of the BAM specification to encode PacBio-specific information, as well as conventions we adhere to.

An example file adhering to this specification will be maintained in the pbcore Python library.


The PacBio BAM specification version described here is 4.0.0. PacBio BAM files adhering to this spec contain the tag pb:4.0.0 in the @HD header.

Coordinate conventions

The BAM format uses a 0-based coordinate system to refer to positions and intervals on the reference.

PacBio also uses a 0-based coordinate system to refer to positions and intervals within sequence reads. Positions in PacBio reads are reckoned from the first ZMW read base (as base 0), not the first base in the HQ region.

Perhaps confusingly, the text SAM format uses 1-based coordinate system.

Note that following the SAM/BAM specification, 0-based coordinate intervals are defined as half-open (end exclusive) while 1-based intervals are closed.

Query versus aligned query terminology

A sequence read presented to an aligner is termed a query; typically this query will be a subsequence of an entire PacBio ZMW read—most commonly, it will be a subread, which is basecalls from a single pass of the insert DNA molecule.

Upon alignment, generally only a subsequence of the query will align to the reference genome, and that subsequence is referred to as the aligned query. Under soft-clipping, the entirety of the query is stored in the aligned BAM, but the CIGAR field indicates that some bases at either end are excluded from the alignment.

Abstractly, we denote the extent of the query in ZMW read as [qStart, qEnd) and the extent of the aligned subinterval as [aStart, aEnd) The following graphic illustrates these intervals:

          qStart                         qEnd
0         |  aStart                aEnd  |
[--...----*--*---------------------*-----*-----...------)  < "ZMW read" coord. system
          ~~~----------------------~~~~~~                  <  query; "-" = aligning subseq.
[--...-------*---------...---------*-----------...------)  < "ref." / "target" coord. system
0            tStart                tEnd

In our BAM files, the qStart, qEnd are contained in the qs and qe tags, (and reflected in the QNAME); the bounds of the aligned query in the ZMW read can be determined by adjusting qs and qe by the number of soft-clipped bases at the ends of the alignment (as found in the CIGAR).


In the legacy cmp.h5 file format, soft-clipping was not possible, and the bounds of the original query were not stored. Only aStart, aEnd were stored, although in that file format they were referred to as rStart, rEnd.

QNAME convention

By convention the QNAME (“query template name”) for unrolled reads and subreads is in the following format:


where [qStart, qEnd) is the 0-based coordinate interval representing the span of the query in the ZMW read, as above.

For CCS reads, the QNAME convention is:


In “by-strand mode” the QNAME for CCS reads may include a suffix fwd or rev to convey strand information:


CIGAR conventions

The “M” CIGAR op (BAM_CMATCH) is forbidden in PacBio BAM files. PacBio BAM files use the more explicit ops “X” (BAM_CDIFF) and “=” (BAM_CEQUAL). PacBio software will abort if BAM_CMATCH is found in a CIGAR field.

BAM filename conventions

Since we will be using BAM format for different kinds of data, we will use a suffix.bam filename convention:

Data type Filename template
ZMW reads from movie movieName.zmws.bam
Analysis-ready subreads 1
from movie
Excised adapters, barcodes, and
rejected subreads
CCS reads computed from movie movieName.ccs.bam
Aligned subreads in a job jobID.aligned_subreads.bam
Aligned CCS in a job jobID.aligned_ccs.bam
Data in a subreads.bam file should be analysis ready, meaning that all of the data present is expected to be useful for down-stream analyses. Any subreads for which we have strong evidence will not be useful (e.g. double-adapter inserts, single-molecule artifacts) should be excluded from this file and placed in scraps.bam as a Filtered with an SC tag of F.

BAM sorting conventions

Aligned PacBio BAM files shall be sorted by position in the standard fashion as done by samtools sort. The BAM @HD::SO tag shall be set to coordinate.

Unaligned PacBio BAM files shall be sorted by QNAME, so that all subreads from a ZMW hole are stored contiguously in a file, with groups by ZMW hole number in numerical order, and within a ZMW, numerically by qStart. In case subreads and CCS reads are combined in a BAM, the CCS reads will sort after the subreads (ccs follows {qStart}_{qEnd}). Note that this sorting is not strictly alphabetical, so we shall set the BAM @HD::SO tag to unknown.

Use of headers for file-level information

Beyond the usual information encoded in headers that is called for SAM/BAM spec, we encode special information as follows.

@RG (read group) header entries:

ID tag (identifier):

contains an 8-character string interpretable as the hexadecimal representation of an integer. Optionally, a read group identifier may contain barcode labels to distinguish demultiplexed samples. Read groups should have distinct ID values.


Standard read group identifiers for PacBio data are calculated as follows:

RGID_STRING := md5(movieName + "//" + readType)[:8]
RGID_INT    := int32.Parse(RGID_STRING)

where movieName is the moviename (@RG::PU) and readType is the read type (found in @RG::DS). Note that movieName is lowercase while readType is uppercase. md5 is understood to be the (lowercase) hex md5 digest of the input string.

RGID_STRING is used in the @RG header and in the RG tag of BAM records, while RGID_INT is used in the PacBio BAM index file.

Note that RGID_INT may be negative.

Example: CCS reads for a movie named “movie32” would have
  • RGID_STRING = “f5b4ffb6”
  • RGID_INT = -172687434

Optional barcode labels must be appended to the RGID_STRING as follows:


where the bcForward and bcReverse labels correspond to the 0-based positions in the FASTA file of barcodes. These are the same values used to populate a barcoded record’s bc tag.

PL tag (“platform”):
contains "PACBIO".
PM tag (“platform model”):
contains "ASTRO", "RS", or "SEQUEL", reflecting the PacBio instrument series.
PU tag (“platform unit”):
contains the PacBio movie name.
LB tag (“Well Sample Name”):
contains the user-supplied name of the library.
SM tag (“Bio Sample Name”):
contains the user-supplied name of the biological sample.
BC tag (“barcodes”):

contains the barcode sequences associated with this read group. This tag is not required in all PacBio BAM files, but must be provided when the read group ID includes barcode labels.

The value must be represented in the format recommended by the SAM/BAM spec. Barcode sequences will be concatenated by a single dash. If both barcodes are the same, only one needs to be provided.

{seq} {seq1}-{seq2}

Note that this differs from the format used to label barcode indices on a read group’s ID.

DS tag (“description”):

contains some semantic information about the reads in the group, encoded as a semicolon-delimited list of “Key=Value” strings, as follows:

Mandatory items:

Key Value spec Value example
BINDINGKIT Binding kit part number 100236500
SEQUENCINGKIT Sequencing kit part number 001558034
BASECALLERVERSION Basecaller version number 2.1
FRAMERATEHZ Frame rate in Hz 100
CONTROL TRUE if reads are classified as spike-in controls, otherwise CONTROL key is absent TRUE


The READTYPE values encountered in secondary analysis will be limited to SUBREAD and CCS. The remaining READTYPE values will only be encountered in intermediate steps before secondary analysis.

Base feature manifest—absent item means feature absent from reads:

Key Value spec Value example
DeletionQV Name of tag used for DeletionQV dq
DeletionTag Name of tag used for DeletionTag dt
InsertionQV Name of tag used for InsertionQV iq
MergeQV Name of tag used for MergeQV mq
SubstitutionQV Name of tag used for SubstitutionQV sq
SubstitutionTag Name of tag used for SubstitutionTag st
Ipd:Frames Name of tag used for IPD, in raw frame count. ip
Ipd:CodecV1 Name of tag used for IPD, compressed according to Codec V1. ip
PulseWidth:Frames Name of tag used for PulseWidth, in raw frame count. pw
PulseWidth:CodecV1 Name of tag used for PulseWidth, compressed according to Codec V1. pw

Optional items:


These items are optional if there are no “bc” tags in the reads belonging to this read-group, otherwise they are mandatory.

Key Value spec Value example
BarcodeFile Name of the Fasta file containing the sequences of the barcodes used pacbio_384_barcodes.fasta
BarcodeHash The MD5 hash of the contents of the barcoding sequence file, as generated by the md5sum commandline tool 0a294bb959fc6c766967fc8beeb4d88d
BarcodeCount The number of barcode sequences in the Barcode File 384
BarcodeMode Experimental design of the barcodes Must be Symmetric/Asymmetric/Tailed or None Symmetric
BarcodeQuality The type of value encoded by the bq tag Must be Score/Probability/None Probability

Use of read tags for per-read information

Tag Type Description
qs i 0-based start of query in the ZMW read (absent in CCS)
qe i 0-based end of query in the ZMW read (absent in CCS)
ws i Start of first base of the query (‘qs’) in approximate raw frame count since start of movie. For a CCS read, the start of the first base of the first incorporated subread.
we i Start of last base of the query (‘qe - 1’) in approximate raw frame count since start of movie. For a CCS read, the start of the last base of the last incorporated subread.
zm i ZMW hole number
np i NumPasses (1 for subreads, variable for CCS—encodes number of complete passes of the insert)
ec f Effective coverage for CCS reads, the average subread coverage across all windows (only present in CCS reads)
rq f Float in [0, 1] encoding expected accuracy
sn B,f 4 floats for the average signal-to-noise ratio of A, C, G, and T (in that order) over the HQRegion

Use of read tags for per-read-base information

The following read tags encode features measured/calculated per-basecall. Unlike SEQ and QUAL, aligners will not orient these tags. They will be maintained in native orientation (in the same order and sense as collected from the instrument) even if the read record has been aligned to the reverse strand.

Tag Type Description
dq Z DeletionQV
dt Z DeletionTag
iq Z InsertionQV
mq Z MergeQV
sq Z SubstitutionQV
st Z SubstitutionTag
ip B,C or B,S IPD (raw frames or codec V1)
pw B,C or B,S PulseWidth (raw frames or codec V1)


  • QV metrics are ASCII+33 encoded as strings
  • DeletionTag and SubstitutionTag represent alternate basecalls, or “N” when there is no alternate basecall available. In other words, they are strings over the alphabet “ACGTN”.
  • Encoding of kinetics features (ip, pw) is described below.

Use of read tags for HiFi per-read-base kinetic information

The following read tags contain averaged kinetic information (IPD/PulseWidth) from subreads when applying CCS to generate HiFi reads. These are computed and stored independently for both orientations of the insert. Forward is defined with respect to the orientation represented in SEQ and is considered to be the native orientation. As with other PacBio-specific tags, aligners will not re-orient these fields.

Tag Type Description
fi B,C Forward IPD (codec V1)
ri B,C Reverse IPD (codec V1)
fp B,C Forward PulseWidth (codec V1)
rp B,C Reverse PulseWidth (codec V1)
fn i Forward number of complete passes (zero or more)
rn i Reverse number of complete passes (zero or more)

Notes: - When CCS filtering is disabled, no averaging occurs with ZMWs that don’t

have enough passes to generate HiFi reads. Instead, the pw/ip values are passed as is from a representative subread.
  • Minor cases exist where a certain orientation may get filtered out entirely from a ZMW, preventing valid values from being passed for that record. In these cases, empty lists will be passed for the respective record/orientation and number of passes will be set to zero.
  • Flanking zeroes in kinetics arrays should be ignored for the respective strand. For instance, when SEQ is AAACGCGTTT and fp:B:C,0,0,0,3,4,5,6,0,0,0, then any downstream application should only use CGCG in its analysis, and ignore the AAA and TTT stretches.

How to annotate scrap reads

Reads that belong to a read group with READTYPE=SCRAP have to be annotated in a hierarchical fashion:

  1. Classification with tag sz occurs on a per ZMW level, distinguishing between spike-in controls, sentinels of the basecaller, malformed ZMWs, and user-defined templates.
  2. A region-wise annotation with tag sc to label adapters, barcodes, low-quality regions, and filtered subreads.
Tag Type Description
sz A ZMW classification annotation, one of N:=Normal, C:=Control, M:=Malformed, or S:=Sentinel 1
sc A Scrap region-type annotation, one of A:=Adapter, B:=Barcode, L:=LQRegion, or F:=Filtered 2
reads in the subreads/hqregions/zmws.bam file are implicitly marked as Normal, as they stem from user-defined templates.
sc tags ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘L’ denote specific classes of non-subread data, whereas the ‘F’ tag is reserved for subreads that are undesirable for downstream analysis, e.g., being artifactual or too short.


The QUAL field in BAM alignments is intended to reflect the reliability of a basecall, using the Phred-encoding convention, as described in the SAM spec.

Both CCS and raw read BAM files respect this convention; historically, and for the present moment, the encoded probability reflects the confidence of a basecall against alternatives including substitution, deletion, and insertion.

We expect that more details will follow here in a later spec revision.

Subread local context

Some algorithms can make use of knowledge that a subread was flanked on both sides by adapter or barcode hits, or that the subread was in one orientation or the other (as can be deduced when asymmetric adapters or barcodes are used).

To facilitate such algorithms, we furnish the cx bitmask tag for subread records. The cx value is calculated by binary OR-ing together values from this flags enum:

enum LocalContextFlags
    ADAPTER_BEFORE     = 1,
    ADAPTER_AFTER      = 2,
    BARCODE_BEFORE     = 4,
    BARCODE_AFTER      = 8,
    FORWARD_PASS       = 16,
    REVERSE_PASS       = 32,

Orientation of a subread (designated by one of the mutually exclusive FORWARD_PASS or REVERSE_PASS bits) can be reckoned only if either the adapters or barcode design is asymmetric, otherwise these flags must be left unset. The convention for what is considered a “forward” or “reverse” pass is determined by a per-ZMW convention, defining one element of the asymmetric barcode/adapter pair as the “front” and the other as the “back”. It is up to tools producing the BAM to determine whether to use adapters or barcodes to reckon the orientation, but if pass directions cannot be confidently and consistently assessed for the subreads from a ZMW, neither orientation flag should be set. Tools consuming the BAM should be aware that orientation information may be unavailable for subreads in a ZMW, but if is available for any subread in the ZMW, it will be available for all subreads in the ZMW.

The ADAPTER_* and BARCODE_* flags reflect whether the subread is flanked by adapters or barcodes at the ends.

The ADAPTER_BEFORE_BAD and ADAPTER_AFTER_BAD flags indicate that one or both adapters flanking this subread do not align to the adapter reference sequence(s). The adapter on this flank could be missing from the pbell molecule, or obscured by a local decrease in accuracy. Likewise, some nearby barcode or insert bases may be missing or obscured. ADAPTER_*_BAD flags can not be set unless the corresponding ADAPTER_* flag is set.

This tag is mandatory for subread records, but will be absent from non-subread records (scraps, ZMW read, CCS read, etc.)

Tag Type Description
cx i Subread local context Flags

Barcode analysis

In multiplexed workflows, we record per-subread tags representing the barcode call and a score representing the confidence of that call. The actual data used to inform the barcode calls—the barcode sequences and associated pulse features—will be retained in the associated scraps.bam file.

Tag Type Description
bc B,S Barcode Calls (per-ZMW)
bq i Barcode Quality (per-ZMW)
  • Both the bc and bq tags are calculated per-ZMW, so every subread belonging to a given ZMW should share identical bc and bq values. The tags are also inter-depedent, so if a subread has the bc tag, it must also have a bq tag and vise-versa. If the tags are present for any subread in a ZMW, they must be present for all of them. In the absence of barcodes, both the bc and bq tags will be absent
  • The bc tag contains the barcode call, a uint16[2] representing the inferred forward and reverse barcodes sequences (as determined by their ordering in the Barcode FASTA), or more succinctly, it contains the integer pair \(B_F, B_R\). Integer codes represent 0-based position in the FASTA file of barcodes.
  • The integer (int) bq tag contains the barcode call confidence. If the BarcodeQuality element of the header is set to Score, then the tag represents the mean normalized sum of the calculated Smith-Waterman scores that support the call in the bc tag across all subreads. For each barcode, the sum of the Smith-Waterman score is normalized by the length of the barcode times the match score, then multiplied by 100 and rounded; this provides an integer value between 0 - 100. On the other hand, if the value of the header-tag is Probability instead, then the tag value is a the Phred-scaled posterior probability that the barcode call in bc is correct. In both cases, the value will never exceed the int8 range, but for backward-compatibility reasons we keep the BAM bq as int. This contract allows the PBI to store bq as a much smaller int8.

The following (optional) tags describe clipped barcode sequences:

Tag Type Description
bl Z Barcode sequence clipped from leading end
bt Z Barcode sequence clipped from trailing end
ql Z Qualities of barcode bases clipped from leading end, stored as a FASTQ string
qt Z Qualities of barcode bases clipped from trailing end, stored as a FASTQ string
bx B,i Pair of clipped barcode sequence lengths

Barcode information will follow the same convention in CCS output (ccs.bam files).

Examples (subreads)

Scenario bc bq cx
No barcodes, end-to-end, unknown orientation absent absent 1|2 = 3
Asymmetric barcodes, end-to-end, forward pass { 1, 37 } 35 1|2|4|8|16 = 31
Symmetric barcodes, end-to end { 8, 8 } 33 1|2|4|8 = 15
Barcoded, HQ region terminates before second barcode; unknown orientation { 8, 8 } 33 1|4 = 5

Alignment: the contract for a mapper

An aligner is expected to accept BAM input and produce aligned BAM output, where each aligned BAM record in the output preserves intact all tags present in the original record. The aligner should not attempt to orient or complement any of the tags.

(Note that this contrasts with the handling of SEQ and QUAL, which are mandated by the BAM/SAM specification to be (respectively) reverse-complemented, and reversed, for reverse strand alignments.)

Alignment: soft-clipping

In the standard production configuration, PacBio’s aligners will be used to align either subreads or CCS reads. In either case, we will use soft clipping to preserve the unaligned bases at either end of the query in the aligned BAM file.

Encoding of kinetics pulse features

Interpulse duration (IPD) and pulsewidth are measured in frames; natively they are recorded as a uint16 per pulse/base event. They may be encoded in BAM read tags in one of two fashions:

  • losslessly as an array of uint16; necessary for PacBio-internal applications but entails greater disk space usage.
  • lossy 8-bit compression stored as a uint8 array, following the codec specified below (“codec V1”). Provides a substantial disk-space savings without affecting important production use cases (base modification detection).

In the default production instrument configuration, the lossy encoding will be used. The instrument can be switched into a mode (PacBio-internal mode) where it will emit the full lossless kinetic features.

The lossy encoding for IPD and pulsewidth values into the available 256 codepoints is as follows (codec v1):

Frames Encoding
0 .. 63 0, 1, .. 63
64, 66, .. 190 64, 65, .. 127
192, 196 .. 444 128, 129 .. 191
448, 456, .. 952 192, 193 .. 255

In other words, we use the first 64 codepoints to encode frame counts at single frame resolution, the next 64 to encode the frame counts at two-frame resolution, and so on. Durations exceeding 952 frames are capped at 952. Durations not enumerated in “Frames” above are rounded to the nearest enumerated duration then encoded. For example, a duration of 194 frames would round to 196 and then be encoded as codepoint 129.

This encoding has the following features, considered essential for internal analysis use cases:

  • Exact frame-level resolution for small durations (up to 64 frames)
  • Maximal representable duration is 9.52 seconds (at 100fps), which is reasonably far into the tail of the distributions of these metrics. Analyses of “pausing” phenomena may still need to account for this censoring.

A reference implementation of this encoding/decoding scheme can be found in pbcore.

Unresolved issues

  • Need to move from strings to proper array types for QVs
  • ‘/’ preferable to ‘:’ in “IPD:CodecV1”
  • Desire for spec for shorter movienames, especially if these are ending up in QNAMEs.