6.1. Trajectory Readers and Writers — MDAnalysis.coordinates

The coordinates submodule contains code to read, write and store coordinate information, either single frames (e.g., the GRO format) or trajectories (such as the DCD format); see the Table of supported coordinate formats for all formats.

MDAnalysis calls the classes that read a coordinate trajectory and make the data available “Readers”. Similarly, classes that write out coordinates are called “Writers”. Readers and Writers provide a common interface to the underlying coordinate data. This abstraction of coordinate access through an object-oriented interface is one of the key capabilities of MDAnalysis.

6.1.1. Readers

All Readers are based on a ProtoReader class that defines a common Trajectory API and allows other code to interface with all trajectory formats in the same way, independent of the details of the trajectory format itself.

The Universe contains the API entry point attribute Universe.trajectory that points to the actual ProtoReader object; all Readers are accessible through this entry point in the same manner (”duck typing”).

There are three types of base Reader which act as starting points for each specific format. These are:


A standard multi frame Reader which allows iteration over a single file to provide multiple frames of data. This is used by formats such as TRR and DCD.


A simplified Reader which reads a file containing only a single frame of information. This is used with formats such as GRO and CRD


An advanced Reader designed to read a sequence of files, to provide iteration over all the frames in each file seamlessly. This Reader can also provide this functionality over a sequence of files in different formats.

Normally, one does not explicitly need to select a reader. This is handled automatically when creating a Universe and the appropriate reader for the file type is selected (typically by the file extension but this choice can be overriden with the format argument to Universe).

If additional simulation data is available, it may be added to and read alongside a trajectory using add_auxiliary() as described in the Auxiliary API.

6.1.2. Writers

In order to write coordinates, a factory function is provided (MDAnalysis.coordinates.core.writer(), which is also made available as MDAnalysis.Writer()) that returns a Writer appropriate for the desired file format (as indicated by the filename suffix). Furthermore, a trajectory ProtoReader can also have a method Writer() that returns an appropriate WriterBase for the file format of the trajectory.

In analogy to MDAnalysis.coordinates.core.writer(), there is also a MDAnalysis.coordinates.core.reader() function available to return a trajectory ProtoReader instance although this is often not needed because the Universe class can choose an appropriate reader automatically.

A typical approach is to generate a new trajectory from an old one, e.g., to only keep the protein:

u = MDAnalysis.Universe(PDB, XTC)
protein = u.select_atoms("protein")
with MDAnalysis.Writer("protein.xtc", protein.n_atoms) as W:
    for ts in u.trajectory:

Using the with() statement will automatically close the trajectory when the last frame has been written.

6.1.3. Timesteps

Both Readers and Writers use Timesteps as their working object. A Timestep represents all data for a given frame in a trajectory. The data inside a Timestep is often accessed indirectly through a AtomGroup but it is also possible to manipulate Timesteps directly.

The current Timestep can be accessed through the ts attribute of the trajectory attached to the active Universe:

ts = u.trajectory.ts
ts.positions  # returns a numpy array of positions

Most individual formats have slightly different data available in each Timestep due to differences in individual simulation packages, but all share in common a broad set of basic data, detailed in Timestep API

6.1.4. Supported coordinate formats

The table below lists the coordinate file formats understood by MDAnalysis. The emphasis is on formats that are used in popular molecular dynamics codes. By default, MDAnalysis figures out formats by looking at the extension. Thus, a DCD file always has to end with “.dcd” to be recognized as such unless the format is explicitly specified with the format keyword to Universe or load_new(). A number of files are also recognized when they are compressed with gzip or bzip2 such as “.xyz.bz2”.

Table of supported coordinate formats








standard CHARMM binary trajectory; endianness is autodetected. Fixed atoms may not be handled correctly (requires testing). Module MDAnalysis.coordinates.DCD




CHARMM-style binary trajectory; endianness is autodetected. Units are appropriate for LAMMPS. Module MDAnalysis.coordinates.LAMMPS




Single frame of coordinates read from .data files




Ascii trajectory in atom style




Compressed (lossy) xtc trajectory format. Module MDAnalysis.coordinates.XTC




Full precision trr trajectory. Coordinates and velocities are processed. Module MDAnalysis.coordinates.TRR




Variable precision tng trajectory. Coordinates, velocities and forces are processed along with any additional tng block data requested for reading. Uses the PyTNG package for tng file reading. Module MDAnalysis.coordinates.TNG

XYZ [1]



Generic white-space separate XYZ format; can be compressed (gzip or bzip2). Module MDAnalysis.coordinates.XYZ

TXYZ [1]

txyz, arc


Tinker XYZ format. Module MDAnalysis.coordinates.TXYZ




HOOMD GSD format (using gsd.hoomd). Module MDAnalysis.coordinates.GSD


gms, log, out


Generic semi-formatted GAMESS output log; can be compressed (gzip or bzip2). Module MDAnalysis.coordinates.GMS


trj, mdcrd


formatted (ASCII) trajectories; the presence of a periodic box is autodetected (experimental). Module MDAnalysis.coordinates.TRJ


inpcrd, restrt


formatted (ASCII) coordinate/restart file Module MDAnalysis.coordinates.INPCRD


ncdf, nc


binary (NetCDF) trajectories are fully supported with optional netcdf4-python module (coordinates and velocities). Module MDAnalysis.coordinates.TRJ

Brookhaven [1]



a relaxed PDB format (as used in MD simulations) is read by default; Multiple frames (MODEL) are supported but require the multiframe keyword. Module MDAnalysis.coordinates.PDB




Extended PDB format (can use 5-digit residue numbers). To use, specify the format “XPBD” explicitly: Universe(..., format="XPDB"). Module MDAnalysis.coordinates.PDB




file format used by AutoDock with atom types t and partial charges q. Module: MDAnalysis.coordinates.PDBQT

PQR [1]



PDB-like but whitespace-separated files with charge and radius information. Module MDAnalysis.coordinates.PQR





basic GROMOS96 format (velocities as well). Only the first frame present will be read. Module MDAnalysis.coordinates.GRO




Basic GROMOS11 trajectory format. Can read positions, box-sizes and timesteps. Module MDAnalysis.coordinates.TRC




“CARD” coordinate output from CHARMM; deals with either standard or EXTended format. Module MDAnalysis.coordinates.CRD




DESRES Molecular Structure file format reader. Module MDAnalysis.coordinates.DMS




Binary IBIsCO or YASP trajectories Module MDAnalysis.coordinates.TRZ




Text-based Tripos molecular structure format MDAnalysis.coordinates.MOL2

DL_Poly [1]



DL_Poly ascii config file MDAnalysis.coordinates.DLPOLY

DL_Poly [1]



DL_Poly ascii history file MDAnalysis.coordinates.DLPOLY

MMTF [1]



Macromolecular Transmission Format MDAnalysis.coordinates.MMTF


coor, namdbin


NAMD binary file format for coordinates MDAnalysis.coordinates.NAMDBIN




FHI-AIMS file format for coordinates MDAnalysis.coordinates.FHIAIMS




H5MD file format for coordinates MDAnalysis.coordinates.H5MD

chemfiles library



interface to chemfiles, see the list of chemfiles file formats and MDAnalysis.coordinates.chemfiles

6.1.5. Trajectory API

The Trajectory API defines how classes have to be structured that allow reading and writing of coordinate files. By following the API it is possible to seamlessly enhance the I/O capabilities of MDAnalysis. The actual underlying I/O code can be written in C or python or a mixture thereof.

Typically, each format resides in its own module, named by the format specifier (and using upper case by convention).

Reader and Writer classes are derived from base classes in MDAnalysis.coordinates.base. Registry

In various places, MDAnalysis tries to automatically select appropriate formats (e.g. by looking at file extensions). In order to allow it to choose the correct format, all I/O classes must subclass either MDAnalysis.coordinates.base.ReaderBase, MDAnalysis.coordinates.base.SingleFrameReaderBase, or MDAnalysis.coordinates.base.WriterBase and set the format attribute with a string defining the expected suffix. To assign multiple suffixes to an I/O class, a list of suffixes can be given.

In addition to this, a Reader may define a _format_hint staticmethod, which returns a boolean of if it can process a given object. E.g. the MDAnalysis.coordinates.memory.MemoryReader identifies itself as capable of reading numpy arrays. This functionality is used in MDAnalysis.core._get_readers.get_reader_for() when figuring out how to read an object (which was usually supplied to mda.Universe).

To define that a Writer can write multiple trajectory frames, set the multiframe attribute to True. The default is False. To define that a Writer does not support single frame writing the singleframe attribute can be set to False. This is True by default, ie we assume all Writers can also do a single frame. Timestep class

A Timestep instance holds data for the current frame. It is updated whenever a new frame of the trajectory is read.

Timestep classes are derived from MDAnalysis.coordinates.timestep.Timestep, which is the primary implementation example (and used directly for the DCDReader).

The discussion on this format is detailed in Issue 250 Methods

__init__(n_atoms, positions=True, velocities=False, forces=False)

Define the number of atoms this Timestep will hold and whether or not it will have velocity and force information


Compares a Timestep with another


position(s) of atoms; can be a slice or numpy array and then returns coordinate array


number of coordinates (atoms) in the frame


iterator over all coordinates


deep copy of the instance


hook that returns empty data structure for the unitcell representation of this particular file format; called from within __init__() to initialize Timestep._unitcell. Attributes


number of atoms in the frame


current frame number (0-based)


The native frame number of the trajectory. This can differ from frame as that will always count sequentially from 0 on iteration, whilst _frame is taken directly from the trajectory.


The current system time in ps. This value is calculated either from a time set as the Timestep attribute, or from frame * dt. Either method allows allows an offset to be applied to the time.


The change in system time between different frames. This can be set as an attribute, but defaults to 1.0 ps.


A dictionary containing all miscellaneous information for the current Timestep.


A numpy array of all positions in this Timestep, otherwise raises a NoDataError


If present, returns a numpy array of velocities, otherwise raises a NoDataError


If present, returns a numpy array of forces, otherwise raises a NoDataError


Boolean of whether position data is available


Boolean of whether velocity data is available


Boolean of whether force data is available


system box dimensions (x, y, z, alpha, beta, gamma) Also comes with a setter that takes a MDAnalysis box so that one can do

Timestep.dimensions = [A, B, C, alpha, beta, gamma]

which then converts automatically to the underlying representation and stores it in Timestep._unitcell.


system box volume (derived as the determinant of the box vectors of dimensions)


namespace for the representative values of any added auxiliary data. Private attributes

These attributes are set directly by the underlying trajectory readers. Normally the user should not have to directly access those, but instead should use the attribute above.


raw coordinates, a numpy.float32 array; X = _pos[:,0], Y = _pos[:,1], Z = _pos[:,2]


raw velocities, a numpy.float32 array containing velocities (similar to _pos)


forces, similar to velocities above.


native unit cell description; the format depends on the underlying trajectory format. A user should use the dimensions attribute to access the data in a canonical format instead of accessing Timestep._unitcell directly.

The method Timestep._init_unitcell() is a hook to initialize this attribute. Trajectory Reader class

Trajectory readers are derived from MDAnalysis.coordinates.base.ReaderBase (or from MDAnalysis.coordinates.base.ProtoReader if they do not required Reader.__del__() method). A special case are SingleFrame readers for formats that contain only a single coordinate frame. These readers are derived from a subclass of ProtoReader named MDAnalysis.coordinates.base.SingleFrameReaderBase.

Typically, many methods and attributes are overriden but the ones listed below must be implemented.

See also

See the section on Readers in MDAnalysis.coordinates.base for implementation details. Methods

The MDAnalysis.coordinates.DCD.DCDReader class is the primary implementation example.

Mandatory methods

The following methods must be implemented in a Reader class.

__init__(filename, **kwargs)

open filename; other kwargs are processed as needed and the Reader is free to ignore them. Typically, when MDAnalysis creates a Reader from MDAnalysis.Universe it supplies as much information as possible in kwargs; at the moment the following data are supplied:

  • n_atoms: the number of atoms from the supplied topology. This is

    not required for all readers and can be ignored if not required.


allow iteration from beginning to end:

for ts in trajectory:

Readers will automatically rewind the trajectory to before the initial frame (often by re-opening the file) before starting the iteration. Multi frame readers (see Readers) will also rewind the trajectory after the iteration so that the current trajectory frame is set to the first trajectory frame. Single frame readers do not explicitly rewind after iteration but simply remain on the one frame in the trajectory.


close the file and cease I/O


advance to next time step or raise IOError when moving past the last frame


reposition to first frame


entry method of a Context Manager (returns self)


exit method of a Context Manager, should call close().


a __del__() method should also be present to ensure that the trajectory is properly closed. However, certain types of Reader can ignore this requirement. These include the SingleFrameReaderBase (file reading is done within a context manager and needs no closing by hand) and the ChainReader (it is a collection of Readers, each already with its own __del__ method).

Optional methods

Not all trajectory formats support the following methods, either because the data are not available or the methods have not been implemented. Code should deal with missing methods gracefully.


number of frames in trajectory


advance to time step arg = frame and return Timestep; or if arg is a slice, then return an iterable over that part of the trajectory.

The first functionality allows one to randomly access frames in the trajectory:


would load frame 314 into the current Timestep.

Using slices allows iteration over parts of a trajectory

for ts in universe.trajectory[1000:2000]:
    process_frame(ts)   # do some analysis on ts

or skipping frames

for ts in universe.trajectory[1000::100]:
    process_frame(ts)   # do some analysis on ts

The last example starts reading the trajectory at frame 1000 and reads every 100th frame until the end.

A sequence of indices or a mask of booleans can also be provided to index a trajectory.

The performance of the __getitem__() method depends on the underlying trajectory reader and if it can implement random access to frames. All readers in MDAnalysis should support random access.

For external custom readers this may not be easily (or reliably) implementable and thus one is restricted to sequential iteration. If the Reader is not able to provide random access to frames then it should raise TypeError on indexing. It is possible to partially implement __getitem__ (as done on MDAnalysis.coordinates.base.ProtoReader.__getitem__ where slicing the full trajectory is equivalent to MDAnalysis.coordinates.base.ProtoReader.__iter__ (which is always implemented) and other slices raise TypeError.

When indexed with a slice, a sequence of indices, or a mask of booleans, the return value is an instance of FrameIteratorSliced or FrameIteratorIndices. See FrameIterators for more details.

parse_n_atoms(filename, **kwargs)

Provide the number of atoms in the trajectory file, allowing the Reader to be used to provide an extremely minimal Topology. Must be implemented as either a staticmethod or a classmethod.

Writer(filename, **kwargs)

returns a WriterBase which is set up with the same parameters as the trajectory that is being read (e.g. time step, length etc), which facilitates copying and simple on-the-fly manipulation.

If no Writer is defined then a NotImplementedError is raised.

The kwargs can be used to customize the Writer as they are typically passed through to the init method of the Writer, with sensible defaults filled in; the actual keyword arguments depend on the Writer.

timeseries(atomGroup, [start[,stop[,skip[,format]]]])

returns a subset of coordinate data Attributes


filename of the trajectory


number of atoms (coordinate sets) in a frame (constant)


total number of frames (if known) – None if not known


the Timestep object; typically customized for each trajectory format and derived from timestep.Timestep.


dictionary with keys time, length, speed, force and the appropriate unit (e.g. ‘AKMA’ and ‘Angstrom’ for Charmm dcds, ‘ps’ and ‘nm’ for Gromacs trajectories, None and ‘Angstrom’ for PDB). Any field not used should be set to None.


string that identifies the file format, e.g. “DCD”, “PDB”, “CRD”, “XTC”, “TRR”; this is typically the file extension in upper case.


time between frames in ps; a managed attribute (read only) that computes on the fly skip_timestep * delta and converts to the MDAnalysis base unit for time (pico seconds by default)


total length of the trajectory = n_frames * dt


time of the current time step, in MDAnalysis time units (ps)


frame number of the current time step (0-based)


list of the names of any added auxiliary data.


dictionary of the AuxReader instances for any added auxiliary data.

Optional attributes


integrator time step (in native units); hence the “length” of a trajctory frame is skip_timestep*delta time units


string that identifies the compression (e.g. “gz” or “bz2”) or None.


bool, saying if there are fixed atoms (e.g. dcds)


boolean saying if contains box information for periodic boundary conditions unit cell information is stored in attribute dimensions


number of integrator steps between frames + 1 (i.e. the stride at which the MD simulation was sampled) Trajectory Writer class

Trajectory writers are derived from MDAnalysis.coordinates.base.WriterBase. They are used to write multiple frames to a trajectory file. Every time the write() method is called, another frame is appended to the trajectory.

Typically, many methods and attributes are overriden.


with TrajectoryWriter(filename, n_atoms, **kwargs) as w:
    w.write(Universe)    # write a whole universe


w.write(AtomGroup)  # write a selection of Atoms from Universe

See also

See the section on Writers in MDAnalysis.coordinates.base for implementation details. Methods

__init__(filename, n_atoms, **kwargs)

Set-up the reader. This may open file filename and may write content to it such as headers immediately but the writer is allowed to delay I/O up to the first call of write().

Any **kwargs that are not processed by the writer must be silently ignored.


write Timestep data in obj


take the dimensions from the timestep and convert to the native unitcell representation of the format


close file and finish I/O


ensures that close() is called Attributes


name of the trajectory file


dictionary with keys time, length, speed, force and the appropriate unit (e.g. ‘AKMA’ and ‘Angstrom’ for Charmm dcds, ‘ps’ and ‘nm’ for Gromacs trajectories, None and ‘Angstrom’ for PDB). Any field not used should be set to None.


string that identifies the file format, e.g. “DCD”, “PDB”, “CRD”, “XTC”, “TRR”



Timestep instance Single Frame Writer class

A single frame writer is a special case of a trajectory writer in that it writes only a single coordinate frame to a file, for instance, a pdb or gro file. Unlike trajectory formats, which only contains coordinates, single frame formats contain much more information (e.g. atom and residue names and numbers) and hence it is possible to write selections of atoms in a meaningful way.


W = FrameWriter(filename, **kwargs)

The blanket kwargs is required so that one can pass the same kind of arguments (filename and n_atoms) as for the Trajectory writers. In this way, the simple writer() factory function can be used for all writers. Methods

__init__(filename, **kwargs)

opens filename for writing; kwargs are typically ignored


writes the object obj, containing a AtomGroup group of atoms (typically obtained from a selection) or Universe to the file and closes the file


Trajectory and Frame writers can be used in almost exactly the same manner with the one difference that Frame writers cannot deal with raw Timestep objects.