Selection language

Chemfiles selection language allows to select some atoms in a Frame matching a set of constraints. For examples, atom: name H and x > 15 would select all single atoms whose name is H and x coordinate is bigger than 15.

Chemfiles selections differs from the well-known VMD selections by the fact that they are multiple selections: we can select more than one atom at once. All selections starts with a context, indicating the number of atoms we are selecting, and the relation between these atoms. Existing contextes are atoms or one, pairs or two, three and four to select one, two, three or four independent atoms; and bonds, angles and dihedrals for two, three or four bonded atoms.

A selection is built using a context and a set of constraints separated by a colon. For example, atoms: name == H will select all atoms whose name is H. angles: name(#2) == O and mass(#3) < 1.5 will select all sets of three bonded atoms forming an angle such that the name of the second atom is O and the mass of the third atom is less than 1.5.

These constraints are created using selectors. Selectors are small functions that are evaluated for each atom, and return either true if the atom matches, or false if it does not. There are three kinds of selectors:

  • global selectors are all that match all atoms; and none that match no atom;
  • string selectors compare string values with one of == (equal) or != (not equal). One can either compare two atomic properties (name(#1) == type(#2)) or atomic properties to literal strings (name(#1) != He);
  • numeric selectors compare two numeric values with either ==, !=, < (less than), <= (less or equal), > (more than), and >= (more or equal)

Numeric values are produced by numeric selectors (x; mass, …) or literal values (5.2, 22.21e-2). They can also be combined together using mathematical operations: the usual +, -, * and / operators are supported, as well as ^ for exponentiation. These operations follow the usual priority rules: 1 + 2 * 3 is 7, not 9.

When using a selection with more than one atom, selectors must refer to the different atoms with #1, #2, #3 or #4 variables: name(#3) will give the name of the third atom, and so on.

Finally, constraints are combined with boolean operators. The and operator is true if both side of the expression are true; the or operator is true if either side of the expression is true; and the not operator reverse true to false and false to true. name(#1) == H and not x(#1) < 5.0 and (z(#2) < 45 and name(#4) == O) or name(#1) == C are complex selections using booleans operators.

List of implemented properties

Here is the list of currently implemented properties (either string or numeric properties). Additional properties ideas are welcome!

String properties

  • type: gives the atomic type;
  • name: gives the atomic name. Some formats store both an atomic name (H3) and an atom type (H), this is why you can use two different selectors depending on the actual data;
  • resname: gives the residue name. If an atom is not in a residue, this return the empty string;

Numeric properties

  • index: gives the atomic index in the frame;
  • mass: gives the atomic mass;
  • x, y and z: gives the atomic position in cartesian coordinates;
  • vx, vy and vz: gives the atomic velocity in cartesian coordinates;
  • resid: gives the atomic residue index. If an atom is not in a residue, this return -1;

Supported functions in mathematical expressions are: sin, cos, tan for the trigonometric functions; asin and acos inverse trigonometric functions and sqrt. Adding new functions is easy, open an issue about the one you need on the chemfiles repository.


This multiple selection language can be a bit verbose for simpler cases, so it is sometimes allowed to remove parts of the selection. The following rules allow simpler selections:

  • First, in the atoms context, the #1 variable is optional, and atoms: name(#1) == H is equivalent to atoms: name == H.
  • Then, if no context is given, the atoms context is used. This make atoms: name == H equivalent to name == H.
  • Then if no comparison operator is given, == is used by default. This means that we can write name H instead of name == H.
  • Then, multiple values are interpreted as multiple choices. A selection like name H O C is expanded into name H or name O or name C.

At the end, using all these elisions rules, atom: name(#1) == H or name(#1) == O is equivalent to name H O. A more complex example can be bonds: name(#1) O C and index(#2) 23 55 69, which is equivalent to bonds: (index(#1) == O or name(#1) == C) and (index(#2) == 23 or index(#2) == 55 or index(#2) == 69)