# Finding the smallest string that contains a given set of substrings

The algorithm I am looking for has the following requirements: Input is a set of strings. You are looking for a string containing all input strings. The resulting string should be as short as possible. At least shorter than just concatenating all input strings if possible.

Examples:

Input: a ab bc
Output: abc

Input: abcd bcde ef
Output: abcdef


Is there a name for this problem with which it is better to search for solutions?

This problem is called shortest superstring problem. John Gallant, David Maier and James Astorer proved it is NP-hard in 19791.

Given two strings $A$ and $B$, let $|A|$ denote the length of $A$, and let $S(A,B)$ denote the shortest superstring of $A$ and $B$ where $A$ occurs before $B$. It is easy to reduce this problem to travelling salesman problem, where nodes represent strings, and the distance from string $A$ to $B$ is $|S(A,B)|-|A|-|B|$. So you can use known algorithms for travelling salesman problem to solve this problem.

There are several polynomial approximation algorithms. The best known approximation factor is $2\frac{11}{23}$, and the corresponding algorithm is proposed by Marcin Mucha in 20132.

1Gallant, J., Maier, D., & Astorer, J. (1980). On finding minimal length superstrings. Journal of Computer and System Sciences, 20(1), 50-58.

2Mucha, M. (2013, January). Lyndon words and short superstrings. In Proceedings of the twenty-fourth annual ACM-SIAM symposium on Discrete algorithms (pp. 958-972). Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.

• If A is "abc" and B is "cde" S(A,B) is "abcde". Calculating the distance from A to B results in -1. I thought TSP doesn't handle negative distances? What have I missed?
– Vel
Feb 22, 2018 at 16:03
• @Vel TSP can surely handle negative distances. At least you can add a big enough constant to all distances, and the result does not change. Feb 22, 2018 at 16:15