bio comm: find common values

The need to find identical elements within columns of different files is surprisingly common (pun intended).

Thus bio packages another utility called comm. It is a tool that prints the common elements from two files.’

Using bio comm

If file 1 contains:


and file 2 contains


then the command:

bio comm file1 file2

will print the common elements present in the first column of both files:


This is the main usecase of the bio comm software.

Other features

bio comm has a number of convenience parameters:

  • -1 will print elements unique to file 1: B
  • -2 will print elements unique to file 2: D
  • -3 will print the union of elements: A, C, B, D
  • -x 1 reads a different column from file 1
  • -y 1 reads a different column from file 2
  • -t treats the files as tab delimited rather than CSV

The content for either file may come from standard input. In that case the - symbol should be used instead of file name.

Why does bio comm exist?

We could use the UNIX tool called comm to find common or distinct elements. When used properly comm allows you to answer a wide variety of interesting questions.

Unfortunately using comm properly is no easy task.

First for comm to work the values must be on a single column and must be sorted. Then instead of telling comm what we want, we have to tell it what we don’t want (what columns to suppress). That usage is completely backwards of how I like to think.

I don’t usually advocate rewriting UNIX tools, in this case, writing a better comm makes a lot of sense.

Potential limitations

With bio comm most operations will be quicker to do, simpler to perform and easier to understand. The primary limitation of bio comm vs comm is that bio comm loads all elements into memory.

For most use-cases bio comm will work exceedingly well.


bio comm -h
usage: bio [-h] [-1] [-2] [-3] [-t] [-x 1] [-y 1] file1 file2

A better 'comm' command. Prints elements common from columns from two files.

positional arguments:
  file1           input file 1
  file2           input file 2

optional arguments:
  -h, --help      show this help message and exit
  -1, --uniq1     prints elements unique to file 1
  -2, --uniq2     prints elements unique to file 2
  -3, --union     prints elements present in both files
  -t, --tab       tab delimited (default is csv)
  -x 1, --col1 1  column index for file 1 [default=1]
  -y 1, --col2 1  column index for file 2 [default=1]