Basic Unix Commands

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Unix File System Structure

Unix file system.png

Basic Unix Commands

connect to another computer


list files in current directory


long format listing

ls -l

long format, human readable file sizes, reverse time listing

ls -ltrh

Print characters to screen:


display current working directory


make new directory "fastafiles"

mkdir fastafiles

change current working directory to "fastafiles"

cd fastafiles

move up one directory

cd ..

create a link to "contigs.fa"

ln -s contigs.fa link_to_contigs

edit file "contigs.fa", using nano

nano contigs.fa

paged viewing of text file "contigs.fa"

more contigs.fa

scroll through text file "contigs.fa"

less contigs.fa

view contents of text file "contigs.fa"

cat contigs.fa

show the beginning of a file

head contigs.fa

show the end of a file

tail contigs.fa

search for text in a file line by line

grep ACGTACGTAAAA contigs.fa

Line count of a file

wc -l contigs.fa

Cut out certain columns in a file:

cut -d' ' -f1 contigs.fa

Sort a file:

sort contigs.fa

compress a file or directory

gzip contigs.fa

uncompress a file

gunzip contigs.fa

remove (empty) directory "subdir"

rmdir fastafiles

copy file "contigs.fa" to new file "contigs2.fa"

cp contigs.fa contigs2.fa

rename (or move) file "contigs2.fa" to "contigs3.fa"

mv contigs2.fa contigs3.fa

remove file "contigs3.fa"

rm contigs3.fa

download a file from the internet using a URL

wget URL

display manual (or help) page for "command"

man gzip

clear the screen


exit a terminal window



Every Unix command can be put into a sequence that will take the output of one command and turn it into the input to another command. The construct for doing this is the pipe character (i.e |). For example:

grep ">" contigs.fa | wc -l

will count the number of lines with the text ">" in them. This is useful for counting the number of sequences in a fasta file.


The output of a Unix command can be redirected to a file by using the greater-than character construct (i.e >). For example:

grep "ACGTACGT" contigs.fa > lines.out

will create a file that will only have the lines from contigs.fa that have the text "ACGTACGTAAAA" in them.


Most Unix commands have options (sometimes called "switches") that change the behavior of the command. Typically, a switch is a "-" followed by a letter. For example:

wc contigs.fa

will count the number of characters in contigs.fa, however:

wc -l contigs.fa

will count the number of lines in contigs.fa. Switches can also be a "-" or "--" followed by a word. Switches can also take an argument that changes the behavior of the switch:

head -n 20 contigs.fa
head -n 40 contigs.fa

will give you the first 20 and 40 lines, respectively, of the file.

Relative vs. Absolute Path

You can specify a file name using either relative or absolute paths. A relative path is a path that is relative to you current directory. An absolute path is the full path name of the file.

Tab Completion

You can complete the name of a file/program by pressing the TAB key.

Up/Down Arrow

Pressing the Up and Down arrows will cycle through your list of commands, which you can edit and rerun.

Everything is Case Sensitive

All commands, file names, directories, etc. are ALL case sensitive. I.e., cd is not the same thing as CD. Most things on Unix systems are all lower case, however, they don't have to be.

Spaces are delimiters

Remember that spaces are the boundaries between each piece of a command. Spaces are how Unix differentiates between different parts of the command.


Perl is a very useful language that we use often for manipulating and transforming data. Learning Perl is beyond the scope of this tutorial, however, it is something you may want to add to your bioinformatics toolkit.


Scripts are simply text files that have commands in them that can be run. Open a file using nano:

nano myscript

Then, add a few commands into the script:

ls -l
wc -l myscript

Save the file and exit nano. Then change the permissions on the script to make it executable:

chmod 755 myscript

Then run the script:


Getting Help for a command

Many commands have help text that shows you the options and what they do. With some commands you can type the command by itself and it will print out the options. Other commands will need a "-h" or "--help" switch to get the help text.