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Counting k-mers via Suffix Array

  • Last Updated : 17 May, 2019

Pre-requisite: Suffix Array.

What are k-mers?
The term k-mer typically refers to all the possible substrings of length k that are contained in a string. Counting all the k-mers in DNA/RNA sequencing reads is the preliminary step of many bioinformatics applications.

What is a Suffix Array?
A suffix array is a sorted array of all suffixes of a string. It is a data structure used, among others, in full text indices, data compression algorithms. More information can be found here.

Problem: We are given a string str and an integer k. We have to find all pairs (substr, i) such that substr is a length – k substring of str that occurs exactly i times.

Steps involved in the approach:
Let’s take the word “banana$” as an example.
Step 1: Compute the suffix array of the given text.

          6     $   
          5     a$
          3     ana$
          1     anana$
          0     banana$
          4     na$                    
          2     nana$

Step 2: Iterate through the suffix array keeping “curr_count”.
1. If the length of current suffix is less than k, then skip the iteration. That is, if k = 2, then iteration would be skipped when current suffix is $.
2. If the current suffix begins with the same length – k substring as the previous suffix, then increment curr_count. For example, during fourth iteration current suffix “anana$” starts with same substring of length k “an” as previous suffix “ana$” started with. So, we will increment curr_count in this case.
3. If condition 2 is not satisfied, then if length of previous suffix is equal to k, then that it is a valid pair and we will output it along with its current count, otherwise, we will skip that iteration.

                 curr_count  Valid Pair
 6     $           1                     
 5     a$          1
 3     ana$        1         (a$, 1)
 1     anana$      1
 0     banana$     2         (an, 2)
 4     na$         1         (ba, 1)               
 2     nana$       1         (na, 2)


Input : banana$ // Input text
Output : (a$, 1) // k- mers
         (an, 2)
         (ba, 1)
         (na, 2)
Input : geeksforgeeks
Output : (ee, 2) 
         (ek, 2)
         (fo, 1)
         (ge, 2)
         (ks, 2)
         (or, 1)
         (sf, 1)

The following is the C code for approach explained above:

// C program to solve K-mer counting problem
#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <string.h>
// Structure to store data of a rotation
struct rotation {
    int index;
    char* suffix;
// Compares the rotations and
// sorts the rotations alphabetically
int cmpfunc(const void* x, const void* y)
    struct rotation* rx = (struct rotation*)x;
    struct rotation* ry = (struct rotation*)y;
    return strcmp(rx->suffix, ry->suffix);
// Takes input_text and its length as arguments
// and returns the corresponding suffix array
char** computeSuffixArray(char* input_text, 
                               int len_text)
    int i;
    // Array of structures to store rotations
    // and their indexes
    struct rotation suff[len_text];
    // Structure is needed to maintain old 
    // indexes of rotations after sorting them
    for (i = 0; i < len_text; i++) {
        suff[i].index = i;
        suff[i].suffix = (input_text + i);
    // Sorts rotations using comparison function
    // defined above
    qsort(suff, len_text, sizeof(struct rotation), cmpfunc);
    // Stores the suffixes of sorted rotations
    char** suffix_arr = 
       (char**)malloc(len_text * sizeof(char*));
    for (i = 0; i < len_text; i++) {
        suffix_arr[i] = 
        (char*)malloc((len_text + 1) * sizeof(char));
        strcpy(suffix_arr[i], suff[i].suffix);
    // Returns the computed suffix array
    return suffix_arr;
// Takes suffix array, its size and valid length as
// arguments and outputs the valid pairs of k - mers
void findValidPairs(char** suffix_arr, int n, int k)
    int curr_count = 1, i;
    char* prev_suff = (char*)malloc(n * sizeof(char));
    // Iterates over the suffix array,
    // keeping a current count
    for (i = 0; i < n; i++) {
        // Skipping the current suffix
        // if it has length < valid length
        if (strlen(suffix_arr[i]) < k) {
            if (i != 0 && strlen(prev_suff) == k) {
                printf("(%s, %d)\n", prev_suff, curr_count);
                curr_count = 1;}
            strcpy(prev_suff, suffix_arr[i]);
        // Incrementing the curr_count if first
        // k chars of prev_suff and current suffix
        // are same
        if (!(memcmp(prev_suff, suffix_arr[i], k))) {
        else {
            // Pair is valid when i!=0 (as there is
            // no prev_suff for i = 0) and when strlen
            // of prev_suff is k
            if (i != 0 && strlen(prev_suff) == k) {
                printf("(%s, %d)\n", prev_suff, curr_count);
                curr_count = 1;
                memcpy(prev_suff, suffix_arr[i], k);
                prev_suff[k] = '\0';
            else {
                memcpy(prev_suff, suffix_arr[i], k);
                prev_suff[k] = '\0';
        // Modifying prev_suff[i] to current suffix
        memcpy(prev_suff, suffix_arr[i], k);
        prev_suff[k] = '\0';
    // Printing the last valid pair
    printf("(%s, %d)\n", prev_suff, curr_count);
// Driver program to test functions above
int main()
    char input_text[] = "geeksforgeeks";
    int k = 2;
    int len_text = strlen(input_text);
    // Computes the suffix array of our text
    printf("Input Text: %s\n", input_text);
    char** suffix_arr = 
      computeSuffixArray(input_text, len_text);
    // Finds and outputs all valid pairs
    printf("k-mers: \n");
    findValidPairs(suffix_arr, len_text, k);
    return 0;


Input Text: banana$ 
(a$, 1)
(an, 2)
(ba, 1)
(na, 2)

Time Complexity: O(s*len_text*log(len_text)), assuming s is the length of the longest suffix.

1. Suffix Array Wikipedia
2. Suffix Array CMU

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