A mechanistic beta-binomial probability model for mRNA sequencing data

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© 2016 Smith, Birtwistle. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.A main application for mRNA sequencing (mRNAseq) is determining lists of differentiallyexpressed genes (DEGs) between two or more conditions. Several software packages exist to produce DEGs from mRNAseq data, but they typically yield different DEGs, sometimes markedly so. The underlying probability model used to describe mRNAseq data is central to deriving DEGs, and not surprisingly most softwares use different models and assumptions to analyze mRNAseq data. Here, we propose a mechanistic justification to model mRNAseq as a binomial process, with data from technical replicates given by a binomial distribution, and data from biological replicates well-described by a beta-binomial distribution. We demonstrate good agreement of this model with two large datasets. We show that an emergent feature of the beta-binomial distribution, given parameter regimes typical for mRNAseq experiments, is the well-known quadratic polynomial scaling of variance with the mean. The so-called dispersion parameter controls this scaling, and our analysis suggests that the dispersion parameter is a continually decreasing function of the mean, as opposed to current approaches that impose an asymptotic value to the dispersion parameter at moderate mean read counts. We show how this leads to current approaches overestimating variance for moderately to highly expressed genes, which inflates false negative rates. Describing mRNAseq data with a beta-binomial distribution thus may be preferred since its parameters are relatable to the mechanistic underpinnings of the technique and may improve the consistency of DEG analysis across softwares, particularly for moderately to highly expressed genes.




Smith, G. R., & Birtwistle, M. R. (2016). A mechanistic beta-binomial probability model for mRNA sequencing data. PLoS ONE, 11(6). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0157828

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