Jan 4, 2018

Genome Annotation Challenges

Public databases of genetic information have a fundamental garbage-in>garbage-out problem. A huge number of useful databases are populated by pulling information from other databases and adding new value by computational inferences, but automated linking of databases can propagate incorrect information. The curators of primary repositories such as GenBank make an substantial effort to publish only correct information, so they are very conservative about annotating genes with only verifiable information. NCBI also has a policy that the original depositor of any given entry (a gene, protein, genome, experimental dataset, etc.) is the author of its annotation and metadata, and no one else can alter it. 

Staphylococcus aureus is an important human pathogen with perhaps the largest number of whole genome sequences in public repositories of any bacteria. NCBI has 8367 Staph genomes in its “Genomes” section (on Jan 1, 2018), and another ~40,000 in the SRA and Whole Genome Shotgun sections. However, GenBank has chosen strain NCTC 8325 as the Reference Genome for Staph, and put its genes in RefSeq. 

This genome was sequenced, annotated, and submitted on 27-Jan-2006 by Gillaspy et al from the Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. As a result of this “Reference Genome” designation, an automatic lookup of a Staph gene in GenBank is likely to get the annotation from NCTC 8325. This particular Staph genome has 2,767 protein coding genes (plus 30 pseudogenes, 61 tRNA, and 16 rRNA genes), however 1496 of these proteins are annotated with only “hypothetical protein” in their “gene product” or “description” field. This is very confusing, since many of these genes are 100% identical to proteins that have specific and well documented functions in other Staph strains. 

Here is one example:

hypothetical protein SAOUHSC_00010 [Staphylococcus aureus subsp. aureus NCTC 8325]
NCBI Reference Sequence: YP_498618.1
FEATURES             Location/Qualifiers      source          1..231                      /organism="Staphylococcus aureus subsp. aureus NCTC 8325"                      /strain="NCTC 8325"                      /sub_species="aureus"                      /db_xref="taxon:93061"      Protein         1..231                      /product="hypothetical protein"

GenBank knows that this is not the correct annotation for this protein. In the “Region” sub-field of the record (which is very rarely used by automated annotation tools that take data from GenBank) an appropriate function, COG and a CDD conserved domain are noted:

Region  7..231 /
/note="Predicted branched-chain amino acid permease (azaleucine resistance) 
[Amino acid transport and metabolism]; COG1296"                      

NCBI also links this gene to an “Identical Protein Group” where 3957 proteins are listed with 100% amino acid identity, which are annotated variously as: “azaleucine resistance protein AzlC”, “branched-chain amino acid ABC transporter permease”, “AzlC”, and “Inner membrane protein YgaZ”. A very conservative annotation bot might panic at this level of inconsistency and default to the lowest common denominator of “hypothetical protein”. However, a more sophisticated automaton might compare the protein sequence to PFAM or COG protein functional families and assign a common annotation to them all.

The incorrect “hypothetical” annotations for Staph genes in GenBank can be found downstream in many other databases, such as the Database of Essential Genes, AureoWiki, KEGG, UniProt, etc. which all upload their primary annotation from GenBank. So someone sequencing a new strain of Staph and using any of these resources to annotate predicted genes will probably end up assigning “hypothetical protein” for the AzlC gene and many hundreds of others, perpetuating the cycle of misinformation.

In a lot of other cases, it does not seem possible for an algorithm to resolve messy annotations that a human expert might  be able to figure out. For example, Staph strain COL has many hypothetical genes such as SACOL1097. NCBI Identical Proteins also show only “hypothetical protein” annotations.  However, a BLAST search shows 95% identity to nitrogen fixation protein NifR.  

hypothetical protein SACOL1097 [Staphylococcus aureus subsp. aureus COL]
GenBank: AAW37977.1
Identical Proteins FASTA Graphics
LOCUS       AAW37977                  59 aa            linear   BCT 31-JAN-2014
DEFINITION  hypothetical protein SACOL1097 [Staphylococcus aureus subsp. aureus  COL].
VERSION     AAW37977.1
DBLINK      BioProject: PRJNA238
            BioSample: SAMN02603996
DBSOURCE    accession CP000046.1
SOURCE      Staphylococcus aureus subsp. aureus COL

Dec 22, 2017

Contaminated Genomes

This is a long post, so first a quick summary. Some genome sequences contain contaminants. These contaminants create many problems when we use a trusted resource like GenBank or UniProt to summarize the sequences in a taxonomic group. I have illustrated one typical example, but there are thousands (maybe tens of thousands) of others.

I have been obsessing over errors and contamination in our public sequence databases. This week I was trying to use UniProt as a set of reference sequences for fungi. Our goal is fairly simple: To find the fungal DNA in a metagenomic shotgun sequence sample - which is just a mixture of all the DNA present in a scraping from mouth, throat, or any other body site.

UniProt makes it quite easy to sort all their proteins by taxonomy, and to download a subset of the data clustered at 100% (combining all exact duplicate sequences), 90%, or 50% amino acid identity. One might expect that fungal genes should not match bacteria at more than 50% identity. But surprisingly there are quite a lot of 50% and 90% clusters that contain both bacterial and fungal sequences (about 3000 of the 90% fungal clusters also contain bacterial proteins). 

The UniProt support staff provided some very useful help to build a query on their system that finds only those clusters of 90% identical proteins that contain fungal genes, but NO (NO!) bacterial genes. In case you like this sort of thing, here is the exact query:

uniprot:(taxonomy:"Fungi [4751]") NOT taxonomy:"Bacteria [2]" AND identity:0.9
[Note the careful use of quote marks parenthesis and square brackets, this stuff is rather tricky]

So I downloaded this set of putative fungal proteins (UniProt very helpfully creates a single 'representative' UniRef sequence in FASTA format for each cluster). I tested the fungal proteins against all the gene coding sequences (CDS) from the E.coli genome using BLASTx.  Once again, there are far too many high similarity matches.

One of the top matches is to a gene (Guanosine-3',5'-bis(diphosphate) 3'-pyrophosphohydrolase) from the fungus Beauveria bassiana that has 98% identity to E.coli. Since I am in an obsessive mood about this sort of thing, I decided that for this one example, I would collect some evidence to decide if we have strong sequence homology between bacteria and fungi for this gene, if Beauveria bassiana has a horizontal gene transfer, or if E. COLI CAN BE A CONTAMINANT IN GENOME SEQUENCES (!!!) [emphasis mine]

I put this Beauveria gene into a generic NCBI BLAST against all 'nr' proteins, and I got a very interesting result. There are exactly two matches to eukaryotes (Beauveria and a nematode), and 11,858 matches to bacteria, including lots of E.coli.

So I traced the Beauveria bassiana protein in UniProt back to its source as a whole genome shotgun sequence uploaded to GenBank on Nov 3, 2014 by the Institute of Plant Protection, Jilin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Accession PRJNA178080, WGS ANFO00000000, Assembly GCA_000770705.1

I downloaded the whole genome assembly and BLASTed it with the E.coli hydrolase gene from above.  This very quickly pinpointed a contig  00271 (ANFO01000251.1 Beauveria bassiana D1-5 contig00271) that contains the matching sequence. The contig is 72,232 bases long. I then put this conting into NCBI BLAST against Bacteria. I get matches that correspond to lots of bacterial genes (POL I, RecG, iPGM, XanP, CpxA, GTP binding protein, GSI beta, and my ppGpp hydrolase) all with  >90% identity and BLAST e-value 0.0. 

Final answer: This is a contaminant. There was some E.coli DNA sequenced and assembled with the Beauveria DNA, and nobody checked before loading these sequences into GenBank.

My recommendation to GenBank and de novo genome sequencers everywhere is to check all predicted proteins from new genomes for matches to bacteria and human before loading them into a trusted database.

Aug 24, 2017

Gene expression analysis shows that an AHR2 mutant fish population from the Hudson River has a dramatically reduced response to dioxin

Together with Ike Wirgin in the NYUMC Dept. of EnvironmentalMedicine, we just published a paper on a gene expression study of a fish population in the Hudson River in Genome Biology and Evolution. "A Dramatic Difference inGlobal Gene Expression between TCDD-Treated Atlantic Tomcod Larvae from theResistant Hudson River and a Nearby Sensitive Population"

Atlantic tomcod (Microgadus tomcod) is a fish that Ike has been studying for many years as an indicator of biological responses to toxic pollution of the Hudson River estuary which contains two of the largest Superfund sites in the nation because of PCB and dioxin (TCDD)contamination. It was previously shown that tomcod from the Hudson River had extraordinarily high prevalence of liver tumors in the 1970's, exceeding 90% in older fish.  But in 2006 they found that the Hudson River population of this fish had many fewer tumors and a 100-fold reduction of induction of the Cytochrome P450 pathway in response to dioxin and PCB exposure (Wirgin and Chambers 2006). In a 2011 Science paper, they reported a two amino acid deletion of the AHR2 gene in the Hudson River population that was absent, or nearly so, in all other tomcod populations.  The aryl hydrocarbon receptor is responsible for induction of CYP genes in all vertebrates and in activation of most toxicities from these contaminants (Wirginet al 2011).

Our goal for this project was to build a de novo sequence of the genome of the tomcod, annotate all the genes, and do a global analysis of gene expression (with RNAseq) to look at the genome-wide effects of the AHR2 mutation in Hudson River larvae as compared to wild type fish (collected from a clean location at Shinnecock Bay, on the South Shore of Long Island, in the Hamptons). All DNA and RNA sequencing was done at the NYUMC Genome Technology Center under the direction of Adriana Heguy

From a bioinformatics point of view, this project was interesting because we decided to integrate both a genome assembly and multiple transcriptome assemblies to get the most complete set of full-length protein coding genes.  For the transcriptome, we did de novo assembly with rnaSPAdes on many different RNAseq samples including embryo, juvenile, and adult liver.  We made the genome assembly with SoapDenovo2, and then predicted gene coding regions with GLIMMER-HMM. We combined all of these different sets of transcript coding sequences with the EvidentialGene pipeline created by Don Gilbert. With the final merged set of transcripts, we used Salmon to (very quickly) quasi-map the reads in each RNAseq sample onto the transcriptome and quantify gene expression.  Differential gene expression was computed with edgeR.

The results were extremely dramatic. At low doses of dioxin, the wild type larvae show a huge gene expression response, with about a thousand genes having large fold-changes (some key genes were validated by qRT-PCR). The mutant Hudson River larvae basically ignore these low doses, with almost no gene expression changes. At the highest does (1 ppb), the Hudson River fish show some gene expression changes, but mostly not in the same genes as in the wild type fish.  Even the negative control larvae (not treated with dioxin) show a large difference in gene expression between the two populations.  

Jul 25, 2017

RNA-seq Power calculation (FAQ)

I spend a lot of time answering questions from researchers working with genomic data. If I put a lot of effort into an answer, I try to keep it in my file of 'Frequently Asked Questions' - even though this stuff does change fairly rapidly. Last week I got the common question: "How do I calculate Power for an RNA-seq experiment?  So here is my FAQ answer. I have summarized from the work of many wise statisticians, with great reliance on the RnaSeqSampleSize R package by Shilin Zhao and the nice people at Vanderbilt who build a Shiny website interface to it.


>> I’m considering including an RNA-Seq experiment in a grant proposal. Do you have any advice on how to calculate power for human specimens? I’m proposing to take FACS sorted lymphocytes from disease patients and two control groups. I believe other people analyze 10-20 individuals per group for similar types of experiments.
>> It would be great if you have language that I can use in the grant proposal to justify the cohort size. Also, we can use that number to calculate the budget for your services. Thanks!
>> Ken

Hi Ken,

Power calculations require that you make some assumptions about the experiment.  Ideally, you have done some sort of pilot experiment first, so you have an estimate of the total number of expressed genes (RPKM>1), fold change, variability between samples within each treatment, and how many genes are going to be differentially expressed.   The variability of your samples is probably the single most important issue - humans tend to vary a lot in gene expression, cultured cell lines not so much. You can reduce variability somewhat by choosing a uniform patient group - age, gender, body mass index, ethnicity, diet, current and previous drug use, etc.

Have a look at this web page for an example of an RNA-seq  power calculator.

I plugged in the following data:   FDR=0.05, ratio of reads between groups=1, total number of relevant genes 10,000 (ie. you will remove about half of all genes due to low overall expression prior to differential expression testing).  Expected number of DE genes=500, fold change for DE genes=2, read count (RPKM) for DE genes =10, dispersion (Standard Dev) 0.5.  With these somewhat reasonable values, you get sample size of 45.   So, to get a smaller sample size, you can play with all of the parameters. 

The estimated Sample Size:
"We are planning a RNA sequencing experiment to identify differential gene expression between two groups. Prior data indicates that the minimum average read counts among the prognostic genes in the control group is 10, the maximum dispersion is 0.5, and the ratio of the geometric mean of normalization factors is 1. Suppose that the total number of genes for testing is 10000 and the top 500 genes are prognostic. If the desired minimum fold change is 2, we will need to study 45 subjects in each group to be able to reject the null hypothesis that the population means of the two groups are equal with probability (power) 0.9 using exact test. The FDR associated with this test of this null hypothesis is 0.05."

To improve power (other than larger samples size or less variability among your patients), you can sequence deeper (which allows a more accurate and presumably less variable measure of expression for each gene), only look at the most highly expressed genes, or only look at genes that have large fold change. Again, it helps to have prior data to estimate these things.

When I do an actual RNA-seq data analysis, we can improve on the 'expected power' by cheating a bit on the estimate of variance (dispersion). We calculate a single variance estimate for ALL genes, then modify this variance for each individual gene (sort of a Bayesian approach). This allows for a lower variance than would happen if you just calculate StdDev for each gene in each treatment.  This rests on an assumption that MOST genes are not differentially expressed in your experiment, and the variance of all genes across all samples is a valid estimate of background genetic variance.