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GVCF stands for Genomic VCF. A GVCF is a kind of VCF, so the basic format specification is the same as for a regular VCF (see the spec documentation here), but a Genomic VCF contains extra information.

This document explains what that extra information is and how you can use it to empower your variants analyses.

Important caveat

What we're covering here is strictly limited to GVCFs produced by HaplotypeCaller in GATK versions 3.0 and above. The term GVCF is sometimes used simply to describe VCFs that contain a record for every position in the genome (or interval of interest) regardless of whether a variant was detected at that site or not (such as VCFs produced by UnifiedGenotyper with --output_mode EMIT_ALL_SITES). GVCFs produced by HaplotypeCaller 3.x contain additional information that is formatted in a very specific way. Read on to find out more.

General comparison of VCF vs. gVCF

The key difference between a regular VCF and a gVCF is that the gVCF has records for all sites, whether there is a variant call there or not. The goal is to have every site represented in the file in order to do joint analysis of a cohort in subsequent steps. The records in a gVCF include an accurate estimation of how confident we are in the determination that the sites are homozygous-reference or not. This estimation is generated by the HaplotypeCaller's built-in reference model.

Note that some other tools (including the GATK's own UnifiedGenotyper) may output an all-sites VCF that looks superficially like the BP_RESOLUTION gVCFs produced by HaplotypeCaller, but they do not provide an accurate estimate of reference confidence, and therefore cannot be used in joint genotyping analyses.

The two types of gVCFs

As you can see in the figure above, there are two options you can use with -ERC: GVCF and BP_RESOLUTION. With BP_RESOLUTION, you get a gVCF with an individual record at every site: either a variant record, or a non-variant record. With GVCF, you get a gVCF with individual variant records for variant sites, but the non-variant sites are grouped together into non-variant block records that represent intervals of sites for which the genotype quality (GQ) is within a certain range or band. The GQ ranges are defined in the ##GVCFBlock line of the gVCF header. The purpose of the blocks (also called banding) is to keep file size down, and there is no downside for the downstream analysis, so we do recommend using the -GVCF option.

Example gVCF file

This is a banded gVCF produced by HaplotypeCaller with the -GVCF option.


As you can see in the first line, the basic file format is a valid version 4.1 VCF. See also the ##GVCFBlock lines (after the ##FORMAT lines) which indicate the GQ ranges used for banding, and the definition of the MIN_DP annotation in the ##FORMAT lines.

##ALT=<ID=NON_REF,Description="Represents any possible alternative allele at this location">
##FILTER=<ID=LowQual,Description="Low quality">
##FORMAT=<ID=AD,Number=.,Type=Integer,Description="Allelic depths for the ref and alt alleles in the order listed">
##FORMAT=<ID=DP,Number=1,Type=Integer,Description="Approximate read depth (reads with MQ=255 or with bad mates are filtered)">
##FORMAT=<ID=GQ,Number=1,Type=Integer,Description="Genotype Quality">
##FORMAT=<ID=MIN_DP,Number=1,Type=Integer,Description="Minimum DP observed within the GVCF block">
##FORMAT=<ID=PL,Number=G,Type=Integer,Description="Normalized, Phred-scaled likelihoods for genotypes as defined in the VCF specification">
##FORMAT=<ID=SB,Number=4,Type=Integer,Description="Per-sample component statistics which comprise the Fisher's Exact Test to detect strand bias.">
##INFO=<ID=BaseQRankSum,Number=1,Type=Float,Description="Z-score from Wilcoxon rank sum test of Alt Vs. Ref base qualities">
##INFO=<ID=ClippingRankSum,Number=1,Type=Float,Description="Z-score From Wilcoxon rank sum test of Alt vs. Ref number of hard clipped bases">
##INFO=<ID=DP,Number=1,Type=Integer,Description="Approximate read depth; some reads may have been filtered">
##INFO=<ID=DS,Number=0,Type=Flag,Description="Were any of the samples downsampled?">
##INFO=<ID=END,Number=1,Type=Integer,Description="Stop position of the interval">
##INFO=<ID=HaplotypeScore,Number=1,Type=Float,Description="Consistency of the site with at most two segregating haplotypes">
##INFO=<ID=InbreedingCoeff,Number=1,Type=Float,Description="Inbreeding coefficient as estimated from the genotype likelihoods per-sample when compared against the Hardy-Weinberg expectation">
##INFO=<ID=MLEAC,Number=A,Type=Integer,Description="Maximum likelihood expectation (MLE) for the allele counts (not necessarily the same as the AC), for each ALT allele, in the same order as listed">
##INFO=<ID=MLEAF,Number=A,Type=Float,Description="Maximum likelihood expectation (MLE) for the allele frequency (not necessarily the same as the AF), for each ALT allele, in the same order as listed">
##INFO=<ID=MQ,Number=1,Type=Float,Description="RMS Mapping Quality">
##INFO=<ID=MQ0,Number=1,Type=Integer,Description="Total Mapping Quality Zero Reads">
##INFO=<ID=MQRankSum,Number=1,Type=Float,Description="Z-score From Wilcoxon rank sum test of Alt vs. Ref read mapping qualities">
##INFO=<ID=ReadPosRankSum,Number=1,Type=Float,Description="Z-score from Wilcoxon rank sum test of Alt vs. Ref read position bias">


The first thing you'll notice, hopefully, is the <NON_REF> symbolic allele listed in every record's ALT field. This provides us with a way to represent the possibility of having a non-reference allele at this site, and to indicate our confidence either way.

The second thing to look for is the END tag in the INFO field of non-variant block records. This tells you at what position the block ends. For example, the first line is a non-variant block that starts at position 20:10000000 and ends at 20:10000116.

20  10000000    .   T   <NON_REF>   .   .   END=10000116    GT:DP:GQ:MIN_DP:PL  0/0:44:99:38:0,89,1385
20  10000117    .   C   T,<NON_REF> 612.77  .   BaseQRankSum=0.000;ClippingRankSum=-0.411;DP=38;MLEAC=1,0;MLEAF=0.500,0.00;MQ=221.39;MQ0=0;MQRankSum=-2.172;ReadPosRankSum=-0.235   GT:AD:DP:GQ:PL:SB   0/1:17,21,0:38:99:641,0,456,691,519,1210:6,11,11,10
20  10000118    .   T   <NON_REF>   .   .   END=10000210    GT:DP:GQ:MIN_DP:PL  0/0:42:99:38:0,80,1314
20  10000211    .   C   T,<NON_REF> 638.77  .   BaseQRankSum=0.894;ClippingRankSum=-1.927;DP=42;MLEAC=1,0;MLEAF=0.500,0.00;MQ=221.89;MQ0=0;MQRankSum=-1.750;ReadPosRankSum=1.549    GT:AD:DP:GQ:PL:SB   0/1:20,22,0:42:99:667,0,566,728,632,1360:9,11,12,10
20  10000212    .   A   <NON_REF>   .   .   END=10000438    GT:DP:GQ:MIN_DP:PL  0/0:52:99:42:0,99,1403
20  10000439    .   T   G,<NON_REF> 1737.77 .   DP=57;MLEAC=2,0;MLEAF=1.00,0.00;MQ=221.41;MQ0=0 GT:AD:DP:GQ:PL:SB   1/1:0,56,0:56:99:1771,168,0,1771,168,1771:0,0,0,0
20  10000440    .   T   <NON_REF>   .   .   END=10000597    GT:DP:GQ:MIN_DP:PL  0/0:56:99:49:0,120,1800
20  10000598    .   T   A,<NON_REF> 1754.77 .   DP=54;MLEAC=2,0;MLEAF=1.00,0.00;MQ=185.55;MQ0=0 GT:AD:DP:GQ:PL:SB   1/1:0,53,0:53:99:1788,158,0,1788,158,1788:0,0,0,0
20  10000599    .   T   <NON_REF>   .   .   END=10000693    GT:DP:GQ:MIN_DP:PL  0/0:51:99:47:0,120,1800
20  10000694    .   G   A,<NON_REF> 961.77  .   BaseQRankSum=0.736;ClippingRankSum=-0.009;DP=54;MLEAC=1,0;MLEAF=0.500,0.00;MQ=106.92;MQ0=0;MQRankSum=0.482;ReadPosRankSum=1.537 GT:AD:DP:GQ:PL:SB   0/1:21,32,0:53:99:990,0,579,1053,675,1728:9,12,10,22
20  10000695    .   G   <NON_REF>   .   .   END=10000757    GT:DP:GQ:MIN_DP:PL  0/0:48:99:45:0,120,1800
20  10000758    .   T   A,<NON_REF> 1663.77 .   DP=51;MLEAC=2,0;MLEAF=1.00,0.00;MQ=59.32;MQ0=0  GT:AD:DP:GQ:PL:SB   1/1:0,50,0:50:99:1697,149,0,1697,149,1697:0,0,0,0
20  10000759    .   A   <NON_REF>   .   .   END=10001018    GT:DP:GQ:MIN_DP:PL  0/0:40:99:28:0,65,1080
20  10001019    .   T   G,<NON_REF> 93.77   .   BaseQRankSum=0.058;ClippingRankSum=-0.347;DP=26;MLEAC=1,0;MLEAF=0.500,0.00;MQ=29.65;MQ0=0;MQRankSum=-0.925;ReadPosRankSum=0.000 GT:AD:DP:GQ:PL:SB   0/1:19,7,0:26:99:122,0,494,179,515,694:12,7,4,3
20  10001020    .   C   <NON_REF>   .   .   END=10001020    GT:DP:GQ:MIN_DP:PL  0/0:26:72:26:0,72,1080
20  10001021    .   T   <NON_REF>   .   .   END=10001021    GT:DP:GQ:MIN_DP:PL  0/0:25:37:25:0,37,909
20  10001022    .   C   <NON_REF>   .   .   END=10001297    GT:DP:GQ:MIN_DP:PL  0/0:30:87:25:0,72,831
20  10001298    .   T   A,<NON_REF> 1404.77 .   DP=41;MLEAC=2,0;MLEAF=1.00,0.00;MQ=171.56;MQ0=0 GT:AD:DP:GQ:PL:SB   1/1:0,41,0:41:99:1438,123,0,1438,123,1438:0,0,0,0
20  10001299    .   C   <NON_REF>   .   .   END=10001386    GT:DP:GQ:MIN_DP:PL  0/0:43:99:39:0,95,1226
20  10001387    .   C   <NON_REF>   .   .   END=10001418    GT:DP:GQ:MIN_DP:PL  0/0:41:42:39:0,21,315
20  10001419    .   T   <NON_REF>   .   .   END=10001425    GT:DP:GQ:MIN_DP:PL  0/0:45:12:42:0,9,135
20  10001426    .   A   <NON_REF>   .   .   END=10001427    GT:DP:GQ:MIN_DP:PL  0/0:49:0:48:0,0,1282
20  10001428    .   T   <NON_REF>   .   .   END=10001428    GT:DP:GQ:MIN_DP:PL  0/0:49:21:49:0,21,315
20  10001429    .   G   <NON_REF>   .   .   END=10001429    GT:DP:GQ:MIN_DP:PL  0/0:47:18:47:0,18,270
20  10001430    .   G   <NON_REF>   .   .   END=10001431    GT:DP:GQ:MIN_DP:PL  0/0:45:0:44:0,0,1121
20  10001432    .   A   <NON_REF>   .   .   END=10001432    GT:DP:GQ:MIN_DP:PL  0/0:43:18:43:0,18,270
20  10001433    .   T   <NON_REF>   .   .   END=10001433    GT:DP:GQ:MIN_DP:PL  0/0:44:0:44:0,0,1201
20  10001434    .   G   <NON_REF>   .   .   END=10001434    GT:DP:GQ:MIN_DP:PL  0/0:44:18:44:0,18,270
20  10001435    .   A   <NON_REF>   .   .   END=10001435    GT:DP:GQ:MIN_DP:PL  0/0:44:0:44:0,0,1130
20  10001436    .   A   AAGGCT,<NON_REF>    1845.73 .   DP=43;MLEAC=2,0;MLEAF=1.00,0.00;MQ=220.07;MQ0=0 GT:AD:DP:GQ:PL:SB   1/1:0,42,0:42:99:1886,125,0,1888,126,1890:0,0,0,0
20  10001437    .   A   <NON_REF>   .   .   END=10001437    GT:DP:GQ:MIN_DP:PL  0/0:44:0:44:0,0,0

Note that toward the end of this snippet, you see multiple consecutive non-variant block records. These were not merged into a single record because the sites they contain belong to different ranges of GQ (which are defined in the header).

Comments (7)

GATK 3.2 was released on July 14, 2014. Highlights are listed below. Read the detailed version history overview here: http://www.broadinstitute.org/gatk/guide/version-history

We also want to take this opportunity to thank super-user Phillip Dexheimer for all of his excellent contributions to the codebase, especially for this release.

Haplotype Caller

  • Various improvements were made to the assembly engine and likelihood calculation, which leads to more accurate genotype likelihoods (and hence better genotypes).
  • Reads are now realigned to the most likely haplotype before being used by the annotations, so AD and DP will now correspond directly to the reads that were used to generate the likelihoods.
  • The caller is now more conservative in low complexity regions, which significantly reduces false positive indels at the expense of a little sensitivity; mostly relevant for whole genome calling.
  • Small performance optimizations to the function to calculate the log of exponentials and to the Smith-Waterman code (thanks to Nigel Delaney).
  • Fixed small bug where indel discovery was inconsistent based on the active-region size.
  • Removed scary warning messages for "VectorPairHMM".
  • Made VECTOR_LOGLESS_CACHING the default implementation for PairHMM.
  • When we subset PLs because alleles are removed during genotyping we now also subset the AD.
  • Fixed bug where reference sample depth was dropped in the DP annotation.

Variant Recalibrator

  • The -mode argument is now required.
  • The plotting script now uses the theme instead of opt functions to work with recent versions of the ggplot2 R library.


  • The plotting script now uses the theme instead of opt functions to work with recent versions of the ggplot2 R library.

Variant Annotator

  • SB tables are created even if the ref or alt columns have no counts (used in the FS and SOR annotations).

Genotype GVCFs

  • Added missing arguments so that now it models more closely what's available in the Haplotype Caller.
  • Fixed recurring error about missing PLs.
  • No longer pulls the headers from all input rods including dbSNP, rather just from the input variants.
  • --includeNonVariantSites should now be working.

Select Variants

  • The dreaded "Invalid JEXL expression detected" error is now a kinder user error.

Indel Realigner

  • Now throws a user error when it encounters reads with I operators greater than the number of read bases.
  • Fixed bug where reads that are all insertions (e.g. 50I) were causing it to fail.


  • Now computes posterior probabilities only for SNP sites with SNP priors (other sites have flat priors applied).
  • Now computes genotype posteriors using likelihoods from all members of the trio.
  • Added annotations for calling potential de novo mutations.
  • Now uses PP tag instead of GP tag because posteriors are Phred-scaled.

Cat Variants

  • Can now process .list files with -V.
  • Can now handle BCF and Block-Compressed VCF files.

Validate Variants

  • Now works with gVCF files.
  • By default, all strict validations are performed; use --validationTypeToExclude to exclude specific tests.


  • Now use '--use_IUPAC_sample sample_name' to specify which sample's genotypes should be used for the IUPAC encoding with multi-sample VCF files.


  • Refactored maven directories and java packages replacing "sting" with "gatk".
  • Extended on-the-fly sample renaming feature to VCFs with the --sample_rename_mapping_file argument.
  • Added a new read transformer that refactors NDN cigar elements to one N element.
  • Now a Tabix index is created for block-compressed output formats.
  • Switched outputRoot in SplitSamFile to an empty string instead of null (thanks to Carlos Barroto).
  • Enabled the AB annotation in the reference model pipeline (thanks to John Wallace).
  • We now check that output files are specified in a writeable location.
  • We now allow blank lines in a (non-BAM) list file.
  • Added legibility improvements to the Progress Meter.
  • Allow for non-tab whitespace in sample names when performing on-the-fly sample-renaming (thanks to Mike McCowan).
  • Made IntervalSharder respect the IntervalMergingRule specified on the command line.
  • Sam, tribble, and variant jars updated to version 1.109.1722; htsjdk updated to version 1.112.1452.
Comments (2)

GATK 3.0 was released on March 5, 2014. Highlights are listed below. Read the detailed version history overview here: http://www.broadinstitute.org/gatk/guide/version-history

One important change for those who prefer to build from source is that we now use maven instead of ant. See the relevant documentation for building the GATK with our new build system.


  • This is a new GATK tool to be used for variant calling in RNA-seq data. Its purpose is to split reads that contain N Cigar operators (due to a limitation in the GATK that we will eventually handle internally) and to trim (and generally clean up) imperfect alignments.

Haplotype Caller

  • Fixed bug where dangling tail merging in the assembly graph occasionally created a cycle.
  • Added experimental code to retrieve dangling heads in the assembly graph, which is needed for calling variants in RNA-seq data.
  • Generally improved gVCF output by making it more accurate. This includes many updates so that the single sample gVCFs can be accurately genotyped together by GenotypeGVCFs.
  • Fixed a bug in the PairHMM class where the transition probability was miscalculated resulting in probabilities larger than 1.
  • Fixed bug in the function to find the best paths from an alignment graph which was causing bad genotypes to be emitted when running with multiple samples together.


  • This is a new GATK tool to be used in the Haplotype Caller pipeline with large cohorts. Its purpose is to combine any number of gVCF files into a single merged gVCF. One would use this tool for hierarchical merges of the data when there are too many samples in the project to throw at all at once to GenotypeGVCFs.


  • This is a new GATK tool to be used in the Haplotype Caller pipeline. Its purpose is to take any number of gVCF files and to genotype them in order to produce a VCF with raw SNP and indel calls.


  • This is a new GATK tool that might be useful to some. Given a VCF file, this tool will generate simulated reads that support the variants present in the file.

Unified Genotyper

  • Fixed bug when clipping long reads in the HMM; some reads were incorrectly getting clipped.

Variant Recalibrator

  • Added the capability to pass in a single file containing a list of VCFs (must end in ".list") instead of having to enumerate all of the files on the command-line. Duplicate entries are not allowed in the list (but the same file can be present in separate lists).

Reduce Reads

  • Removed from the GATK. It was a valiant attempt, but ultimately we found a better way to process large cohorts. Reduced BAMs are no longer supported in the GATK.

Variant Annotator

  • Improved the FisherStrand (FS) calculation when used in large cohorts. When the table gets too large, we normalize it down to values that are more reasonable. Also, we don't include a particular sample's contribution unless we observe both ref and alt counts for it. We expect to improve on this even further in a future release.
  • Improved the QualByDepth (QD) calculation when used in large cohorts. Now, when the AD annotation is present for a given genotype then we only use its depth for QD if the variant depth > 1. Note that this only works in the gVCF pipeline for now.
  • In addition, fixed the normalization for indels in QD (which was over-penalizing larger events).

Combine Variants

  • Added the capability to pass in a single file containing a list of VCFs (must end in ".list") instead of having to enumerate all of the files on the command-line. Duplicate entries are not allowed in the list (but the same file can be present in separate lists).

Select Variants

  • Fixed a huge bug where selecting out a subset of samples while using multi-threading (-nt) caused genotype-level fields (e.g. AD) to get swapped among samples. This was a bad one.
  • Fixed a bug where selecting out a subset of samples at multi-allelic sites occasionally caused the alternate alleles to be re-ordered but the AD values were not updated accordingly.


  • Fixed bug where it wasn't checking for underflow and occasionally produced bad likelihoods.
  • It no longer strips out the AD annotation from genotypes.
  • AC/AF/AN counts are updated after fixing genotypes.
  • Updated to handle cases where the AC (and MLEAC) annotations are not good (e.g. they are greater than AN somehow).

Indel Realigner

  • Fixed bug where a realigned read can sometimes get partially aligned off the end of the contig.

Read Backed Phasing

  • Updated the tool to use the VCF 4.1 framework for phasing; it now uses HP tags instead of '|' to convey phase information.


  • Thanks to Phillip Dexheimer for several Queue related fixes and patches.
  • Thanks to Nicholas Clarke for patches to the timer which occasionally had negative elapsed times.
  • Providing an empty BAM list no results in a user error.
  • Fixed a bug in the gVCF writer where it was dropping the first few reference blocks at the beginnings of all but the first chromosome. Also, several unnecessary INFO field annotations were dropped from the output.
  • Logger output now goes to STDERR instead of STDOUT.
  • Picard, Tribble, and Variant jars updated to version 1.107.1683.
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