Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bloginar: RNA Deep Sequencing: Beyond Proof of Concept

RNA-Seq is a powerful method for measuring gene expression because you can use the deep sequence data to measure transcript abundance and also determine how transcripts are spliced and whether alleles of genes are expressed differentially.  

At this year’s ABRF (Association for Biomedical Research Facilities) conference, we presented a poster, using data from published study, to demonstrate how GeneSifter Analysis Edition (GSAE) can be used in next generation DNA sequencing (NGS) assays that seek to compare gene expression and alternative splicing between different tissues, conditions, or species.

The following map guides the presentation. The poster has a title and four main sections, which cover background information, introduction to the published work and data, ways to observe alternative splicing and global gene expression differences between samples, and ways to observe sex specific gene expression differences. The last section also identifies a mistake made by the authors.  

Section 1. The first section begins with the abstract and lists five specific challenges created by NGS: 1) high end computing infrastructures are needed to work with NGS data, 2) NGS data analysis involves complex multistep processes, 3) NGS data need to be compared to many reference databases, 4) the resulting datasets of alignments must be visualized in different ways, and 5) scientific knowledge is gained when several aligned datasets are compared. 

Next, we are reminded that NGS data are analyzed in three phases: primary analysis, secondary analysis and tertiary analysis. Primary analysis is the step that converts images to reads consisting of basecalls (or colors, or flowgrams), and quality values. In secondary analysis, reads are aligned to reference data (mapped) or amongst themselves (assembled). Secondary analysis produces tables of alignments that must be compared to one and other, in tertiary analysis, to gain scientific insights. 

Finally, GSAE is introduced as a platform for scalable data analysis. GSAE’s key features and advantages are listed along with several screen shots to show the many ways in which analyzed data can be presented to gain scientific insights.  

Section 2 introduces the RNA-Seq data used for the presentation. These data, from a study that set out to measure sex and lineage specific alternative splicing in primates [1], were obtained from the Gene Expression Omnibus (GEO) database at NCBI, transferred into GSAE, and processed through GSAE’s RNA-Seq analysis pipelines.  We chose this study because it models a proper expression analysis using replicated samples to compare different cases.

All steps of the process, from loading the data to processing the files and viewing results were executed through GSAE’s web-based interfaces. The four general steps of the process are outlined in the box labeled “Steps.” 

The section ends with screen shots from GSAE showing how the primary data can be viewed and a list of the reports showing different alignment results for each sample in the list. The reports are accessed from a “Navigation Panel” that contains links to Alignment Summaries, a Filter Report, and a Searchable Sortable Gene List (shown), and several other reports (not shown). 

The Alignment Summary provides information about the numbers of reads mapping to different reference data sources that are used in the analysis to understand sample quality and study biology. For example, in RNA-Seq, it is important to measure and filter reads matching ribosomal RNA (rRNA) because the amount of rRNA present indicates how well clean up procedures work. Similarly, the number of reads matching adaptors indicates how well the library was prepared. Biological, or discovery based, filters include reads matching novel exon junctions and intergenic regions of the genome.

Other reports like the Filter Report and Gene List provide additional detail. The Filter Report clusters alignments and plots base coverage (read density) across genomic regions. Some regions, like mitochondrial DNA, and rRNA genes, or transcripts, are annotated. Others are not. These regions can be used to identify areas of novel transcription activity.

The Gene List provides the most detail and gives a comprehensive overview of the number of reads matching a gene, numbers of normalized reads, and the counts of novel splices, single nucleotide variants (SNVs), and small insertions and deletions (indels). Read densities are plotted as small graphs to reveal each gene’s exon/intron structure. Additional columns provide the gene’s name, chromosome, and contain links to further details in Entrez. The graphs are linked to the Integrated Gene Viewer to explore the data further. Finally, the Gene LIst is an interactive report that can searched, sorted, and filtered in different ways, so you can easily view the details of your gene or chromosome of interest.

Section 3 shows how GSAE can be used to measure global gene expression and examine the details for a gene that is differentially expressed between samples. In the case of RNA-Seq, or exon arrays, relative exon levels can be measured to observe genes that are spliced differently between samples. The presented example focuses on the arginosuccinate synthetase 1 (ASS1) gene and compares the expression levels of its transcripts and exons between the six replicated human and primate male samples.

The Gene Summary report shows that ASS1 is down regulated by 1.38 times in the human samples. More interestingly, the exon usage plot shows that this gene is differentially spliced between the species. Read alignment data, supporting this observation, are viewed by clicking the “View Exon Data” link that is below the Exon Usage heat map. This link brings up the Integrated Gene Viewer (IGV) for all six samples. In addition to showing read densities across the gene, IGV also shows the numbers of reads that span exon junctions as loops with heights proportional to the number of reads mapping to a given junction. In these plots we see that the human samples are missing the second exon whereas the primate samples show two forms of the transcript. IGV also includes the Entrez annotations and known isoforms for the gene and the positions of known SNPs from dbSNP.  And, IGV is interactive; controls at the top of the report and regions within the gene map windows are used to navigate to new locations and zoom in or out of the data presented.  When multiple genes are compared, the data are updated for all genes simultaneously. 

Section 3 closes with heat map representing global gene expression for the samples being compared. Expression data are clustered using a 2-way ANOVA with 5% false discovery filter (FDR). The top half of the hierarchical cluster groups genes that are down regulated in humans and up regulated in primates and the bottom half groups genes that are expressed in the opposite fashion. The differentially expressed genes can also be viewed in Pathway Reports which show how many genes are up or down regulated in a particular Gene Ontology (GO) pathway.  Links in these reports navigate to lists of the individual genes or their KEGG pathways.  When a KEGG pathway is displayed, the genes that are differentially expressed are highlighted.
Section 4 focuses on the sex specific differences in gene expression between the human and primate samples. In this example, 12 samples are being compared: three replicates for the male and female samples of two species. When these data were reanalyzed in GSAE, we were able to note that an obvious mistake. By examining Y chromosome gene expression, it was clear that one of the human male samples (M2-2) was lacking expression of these genes. Similarly, when the X (inactive)-specific transcript (XIST) was examined, M2-2 showed high expression like the other female samples. The simplest explanations for these observations are that either M2-2 is a female, or a dataset was copied and mislabeled in GEO. However, given that the 12 datasets show subtle differences, it is likely that they are all different and the first explanation is more likely. 

The poster closes with a sidebar showing how GSAE can be used to measure global sequence variation and the take home points for the presentation. The most significant being that if the authors of the paper had used a system like GSAE, they could have quickly observed the problems in their data that we saw and prevented a mistake. 

To see how you can use GSAE for your data sign up for a trial

1. Sex-specific and lineage-specific alternative splicing in primates. Blekhman R, Marioni JC, Zumbo P, Stephens M, Gilad Y,. Genome Res. published online December 15, 2009

Thursday, April 15, 2010

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Bloginar: Standardizing Bioinformatics with BioHDF (HDF5)

Yesterday we (The HDF Group and Geospiza) released the BioHDF prototype software.  To mark the occasion, and demonstrate some of BioHDF’s capabilities and advantages, I share the poster we presented at this year’s AGBT (Advances in Genome Biology and Technology) conference.

The following map guides the presentation. The poster has a title and four main sections, which cover background information, specific aspects of the general Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) workflow, and HDF5’s advantages for working with large amounts of NGS data.
Section 1.  The first section introduces HDF5 (Hierarchical Data Format) as a software platform for working with scientific data.  The introduction begins with the abstract and lists five specific challenges created by NGS: 1) high end computing infrastructures are needed to work with NGS data, 2) NGS data analysis involves complex multi-step processes that, 3) compare NGS data to multiple reference sequence databases, 4) the resulting datasets of alignments must be visualized in multiple ways, and 5) scientific knowledge is gained when many datasets are compared. 

Next, choices for managing NGS data are compared in a four category table.  These include text and binary formats. While text formats (delimited and XML) have been popular for bioinformatics, they do not scale well and binary formats are gaining in popularity. The current bioinformatics binary formats are listed (bottom left) along with a description of their limitations. 

The introduction closes with a description of HDF5 and its advantages for supporting NGS data management and analysis. Specifically, HDF5 is platform for managing scientific data. Such data are typically complex and consist of images, large multi-dimensional arrays, and meta data. HDF5 has been used for over 20 years in other data intensive fields; it is robust, portable, and tuned for high performance computing. Thus HDF5 is well suited for NGS. Indeed, groups from academic researchers to NGS instrument vendors, and software companies are recognizing the value of HDF5.
Section 2. This section illustrates how HDF5 facilitates primary data analysis. First we are reminded that NGS data are analyzed in three phases: primary analysis, secondary analysis and tertiary analysis. Primary analysis is the step that converts images to reads consisting of basecalls (or colors, or flowgrams), and quality values. In secondary analysis, reads are aligned to reference data (mapped) or amongst themselves (assembled). In many NGS assays, secondary analysis produces tables of alignments that must be compared to one and other, in tertiary analysis, to gain scientific insights. 

The remaining portion of section 2 shows how Illumina GA and SOLiD primary data (reads and quality values) can be stored in BioHDF and later reviewed using the BioHDF tools and scripts.  The resulting quality graphs are organized into three groups (left to right) to show base composition plots, quality value (QV) distribution graphs, and other summaries.

Base composition plots show the count of each base (or color) that occurs at a given position in the read. These plots are used to assess overall randomness of a library and observe systematic nucleotide incorporation errors or biases.

Quality value plots show the distribution of QVs at each base position within the ensemble of reads. As each NGS run produces many millions of reads, it is worthwhile summarizing QVs in multiple ways. The first plots, from the top, show the average QV per base with error bars indicating QVs that are within one standard deviation of the mean. Next, box and whisker plots show the overall quality distribution (median, lower and upper quartile, minimum and maximum values) at each position. These plots are followed by “error” plots which show the total count of QVs below certain thresholds (red, QV < 10; green QV < 20; blue, QV < 30). The final two sets of plots show the number of QVs at each position for all observed values and the number of bases having each quality value.

The final group of plots show overall dataset complexity, GC content (base space only), average QV/read, and %GC vs average QV (base space only).  Dataset complexity is computed by determining the number of times a given read exactly matches other reads in the dataset. In some experiments, too many identical reads indicates a problem like PCR bias. In other cases, like tag profiling, many identical reads are expected from highly expressed genes. Errors in the data can artificially increase complexity.
Section 3.  Primary data analysis gives us a picture of how well the samples were prepared or how well the instrument ran with some indication about sample quality. Secondary and tertiary analysis tell us about sample quality and more importantly, provides biological insights. The third section focuses on secondary and tertiary analysis and begins with a brief cartoon showing a high level data analysis workflow using BioHDF to store primary data, alignment results, and annotations. BioHDF tools are used to query these data and other software within GeneSifter is used to compare data between samples and display the data in interactive reports to examine the details from single or multiple samples.

The left side of this section illustrates what is possible with single samples. Beginning with a simple table that indicates how many reads align to each reference sequence, we can drill into multiple reports that provide increasing detail about the alignments. For example, the gene list report (second from top) uses gene model annotations to summarize the alignments for all genes identified in the dataset. Each gene is displayed as a thumbnail graphic that can be clicked to see greater detail, which is shown in the third plot. The Integrated Gene View not only shows the density of reads across the gene's genomic region, but also shows evidence of splice junctions, and identified single base differences (SNVs) and small insertions and deletions (indels). Navigation controls provide ways to zoom into and out of the current view of data, and move to new locations. Additionally, when possible, the read density plot is accompanied by an Entrez gene model and dbSNP data so that data can be observed in a context of known information. Tables that describe the observed variants follow. Clicking on a variant drills into the alignment viewer to show the reads encompassing the point of variation.

The right side illustrates multi-sample analysis in GeneSifter. In assays like RNA-Seq, alignment tables are converted to gene expression values that can be compared between samples. Volcano (top) and other plots are used visualize the differences between the datasets. Since each point in the volcano plot represents the difference in expression for a gene between two samples (or conditions), we can click on that point to view the expression details for that gene (middle) in the different samples. In the case of RNA-Seq, we can also obtain expression values for the individual exons with the gene, making it possible to observe differential exon levels in conjunction with overall gene expression levels (middle). Clicking the appropriate link in the exon expression bar graph, takes us to the alignment details for the samples being analyzed (bottom), in this example we have two cases and two control replicates. Like the single sample Integrated Gene Views, annotations are displayed with alignment data. When navigation buttons are clicked all of the displayed genes move together so that you can explore the gene's details and surrounding neighborhood for multiple samples in a comparative fashion.
Section 4.  The poster closes with details about BioHDF.  First, the data model is described. An advantage of the BioHDF model is that read data are organized non-redundantly. Other formats, like BAM, tend to store reads with alignments and if a read has multiple alignments in a genome, or is aligned to multiple reference sequences, it gets stored multiple times. This may seem trivial, but anything that can happen a million times, becomes noticeable. This fact is demonstrated in the in table listed in the second panel “High Performance Computing Advantages.”  Other HDF5 advantages are listed below the performance stats table.  Most notably is HDF5’s ability to easily support multiple indexing schemes like nested containment lists (NClists). NClists solve the problem of efficiently accessing reads from alignments that may be contained in other alignments, which I will save for a later post.

Finally, the poster is summarized with a number of take home points. These reiterate the fact that NGS is driving the need to use binary file formats to manage NGS and analysis results and that HDF5 provides an attractive solution because of its long history and development efforts that specifically target scientific programming requirements. In our hands, HDF5 has helped make GeneSifter a highly scalable and interactive web-application with less development effort than would have been needed to implement other technologies.  

If you are software developer and are interested in BioHDF please visit  If you do not want to program and instead, want a way to easily analyze your NGS data to make new discoveries, please contact us