Gentle masking of low-complexity sequences improves homology search

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Abstract

Detection of sequences that are homologous, i.e. descended from a common ancestor, is a fundamental task in computational biology. This task is confounded by low-complexity tracts (such as atatatatatat), which arise frequently and independently, causing strong similarities that are not homologies. There has been much research on identifying low-complexity tracts, but little research on how to treat them during homology search. We propose to find homologies by aligning sequences with "gentle" masking of low-complexity tracts. Gentle masking means that the match score involving a masked letter is min(0,S), where S is the unmasked score. Gentle masking slightly but noticeably improves the sensitivity of homology search (compared to "harsh" masking), without harming specificity. We show examples in three useful homology search problems: detection of NUMTs (nuclear copies of mitochondrial DNA), recruitment of metagenomic DNA reads to reference genomes, and pseudogene detection. Gentle masking is currently the best way to treat low-complexity tracts during homology search. © 2011 Martin C. Frith.

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Frith, M. C. (2011). Gentle masking of low-complexity sequences improves homology search. PLoS ONE, 6(12). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0028819

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