- Research article
- Open Access
Quantitative comparison of EST libraries requires compensation for systematic biases in cDNA generation
© Liu and Graber; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2006
Received: 23 September 2005
Accepted: 17 February 2006
Published: 17 February 2006
Publicly accessible EST libraries contain valuable information that can be utilized for studies of tissue-specific gene expression and processing of individual genes. This information is, however, confounded by multiple systematic effects arising from the procedures used to generate these libraries.
We used alignment of ESTs against a reference set of transcripts to estimate the size distributions of the cDNA inserts and sampled mRNA transcripts in individual EST libraries and show how these measurements can be used to inform quantitative comparisons of libraries. While significant attention has been paid to the effects of normalization and substraction, we also find significant biases in transcript sampling introduced by the combined procedures of reverse transcription and selection of cDNA clones for sequencing. Using examples drawn from studies of mRNA 3'-processing (cleavage and polyadenylation), we demonstrate effects of the transcript sampling bias, and provide a method for identifying libraries that can be safely compared without bias. All data sets, supplemental data, and software are available at our supplemental web site .
The biases we characterize in the transcript sampling of EST libraries represent a significant and heretofore under-appreciated source of false positive candidates for tissue-, cell type-, or developmental stage-specific activity or processing of genes. Uncorrected, quantitative comparison of dissimilar EST libraries will likely result in the identification of statistically significant, but biologically meaningless changes.
Expressed sequence tags(ESTs) are single strand reads of transcribed sequence generated from cDNA clones [2–6]. EST sequencing typically originates in the vector, and can include either 5'- or 3'-terminal sequence of the cDNA clone. ESTs have historically provided data for gene discovery [7–11], tissue- or stage-specific gene expression [12–15], alternative splicing [16, 17], and alternative polyadenylation [4, 5, 18–21].
While EST-based gene discovery can be quite successful, the wide dynamic range of mRNA abundance and the cost of EST creation led to the development of procedures such as normalization and subtraction [13, 22], which increase the likelihood of sampling rare or tissue-specific transcripts, at the cost of lost quantitative relationships between different transcripts in a library. Normalization and subtraction utilize a common mechanism, which can be briefly described as heat dehybridization of cDNA, rapid re-hybridization in the presence of a 'driver' sample, extraction of the double-stranded portion of the sample, and finally sequencing of a sampling of the remaining single-stranded sequences. The rapid re-hybridization step favors duplex formation of abundant species, therefore the remaining single-stranded sample is enriched for rare transcripts. The difference between normalization and subtraction lies in the choice of driver sequences. In normalization, the drivers come from the same sample, whereas in subtraction, the driver comes from a separate sample (or even pool of samples).
Since cDNA clones are created from mRNA sequences, the distribution of ESTs in a non-normalized library is presumably reflective of the population of mRNA sequences in the originating tissue. Audic and Claverie  demonstrated how non-normalized EST libraries could be analyzed to generate "transcript profiles" or "digital Northerns," and further developed rigorous statistical tests for significant variation between tissue or cell types. Several methods have been subsequently developed to enable studies of cDNA libraries to elucidate targets and mechanisms of tissue- and/or stage-specific gene expression [23–25]. Bioinformatic tools, such as Tissuelnfo , BodyMap  and ExQuest  utilize counts of ESTs in libraries for high-throughput identification of tissue expression profiles and specificity, in spite of the known limitations on their fidelity of representation of gene expression on the originating tissue .
cDNA library generation is dependent on several steps, including selection and preparation of tissue, RNA purification, RNA to cDNA conversion, and cloning and transformation of the cDNA . Procedures such as reverse transcription and selection of cDNA clones for sequencing can introduce systematic biases in any quantitative analysis using cDNA libraries. Confounding matters further, the depth of annotation among EST libraries is not uniform and often incomplete. It is worth noting that differences in transcript sampling between disparate laboratories and research groups are not unexpected, given the varied motivations and resources of the library creators.
We present here a method and means to identify and compensate for the biases in transcript sampling and enable quantitative comparisons between libraries. We analyzed and quantized over 900 mouse EST libraries with at least 100 entries, estimating the length distributions of cDNA inserts and their originating mRNA transcripts through alignment to a reference set of transcripts. (Similar analyses are being prepared for other organisms and will be made available on our web site .) The cDNA insert length distribution provides information about the efficiency and/or goals of the reverse transcription reaction, while the transcript length distribution evaluates the variety of transcripts sampled in the library. Our results show that the combined steps of reverse transcription and selection of clones (including optional restriction by insert size) for sequencing can introduce significant biases into transcript sampling in EST libraries, but that through identification and characterization of these biases, quantitative comparisons can be enabled. We identified the systematic biases as a part of a study of alternative 3'-processing in mouse spermatogenesis [Liu et al., in preparation], and therefore present our analysis with examples related to 3'-processing. The biases we describe are equally applicable, however, to any quantitative comparative analysis between distinct EST libraries, including assessment of tissue specificity of gene expression or processing.
Results and discussion
Analysis of a group of EST libraries from a common sample. Each of these EST libraries was generated from a common tissue sample. Distance is calculated as L-divergence (Equation 3) between distributions of cDNA and transcript lengths for each library. The targeted size range of the cDNA inserts for each library ranges from 0.5 k to 7 k as described previously 
Interestingly, for the libraries with the shorter targeted lengths (e.g., libraries NIH-BMAP-FAO and NIH-BMAP-FBO), our analysis indicates that the majority of the cDNA inserts and sampled transcripts come from the targeted range, however, as the targeted range increases, this specificity decreases, and a significant number of transcripts with length apparently outside the targeted range are found. This increasing discrepancy could arise from a number of effects. Electrophoretic separation is imprecise, including imperfections in the gels used for size selection and anomalous migration times for specific transcripts. Such unpredictable behavior will more significantly affect measurements of large molecules. Large molecules are also comparatively more prone to breakage. Our method for assignment of EST to transcripts is also a likely source of some ambiguity, as it is designed to give a reasonable picture of the characteristics of the complete library, but is certainly not guaranteed to give exact results for any specific EST or transcript.
From the analysis presented in Figure 3, we conclude that with care, quantitative comparisons between EST libraries can be used for the identification of tissue- or stage-specific phenomena, however, systematic variations in transcript sampling must be controlled. We explicitly identify EST libraries that can be safely compared without this bias by using the L-Divergence (Equation 3) to compare the estimated transcript length distributions of all pairs of libraries. Quantitative comparison can be made between pairs of EST libraries whose divergence is less than an empirically determined threshold value. To facilitate such analyses by other investigators, we have made available our tools, data, and results on a web server . Included in this package is a tool that will take as input a single EST library identifier and return a list of other libraries for which quantitative comparisons can safely be made.
While our examples have come from studies of mRNA 3'-processing, the systematic issues we have identified can bias similar analyses of phenomena such as tissue-specific changes in either global transcription patterns of many genes or processing of a specific gene. As long as the measured quantity has a dependence on (or causes a variation in) the transcript size, the effects we describe here can result in a false positive identification of a statistically significant, but biologically meaningless change. As a simple example, consider a gene with a 5000-nucleotide long transcript. If the relative expression level for this gene was compared between two EST libraries whose transcript size sampling resembled libraries NIH-BMAP-FA0 and NIH-BMAP-FO0, respectively, we would expect a large discrepancy favoring the latter library, even if the true expression level in the two tissues was identical.
It is clear from our analysis that the common practice of computationally pooling EST libraries from a common tissue type or developmental stage, while increasing the gene coverage, is not likely to accurately reproduce relative expression levels of the original tissue sample. To see this, consider that our results indicate that in nearly all unbiased samples, the underlying transcript length distribution follows a roughly lognormal distribution, similar to the PACdb transcript, in Figure 1. As we have shown, distinct EST libraries will sample from this underlying distribution in a manner determined by preparation of the library. Simply combining disparate samples together will almost certainly distort the relative contributions of the different size transcripts. For example, the three groups of Brain Map libraries shown in Table 1 and Figure 3 represent roughly equal size samples from six different size ranges of transcripts, which if pooled, would oversample long (>3000 nucleotides) transcripts at the expense of shorter ones.
EST libraries contain a wealth of data regarding gene expression and specifics of transcript processing across a broad range of tissue- and cell-types and developmental stages. These data have been collected, however, by a wide range of researchers with varied procedures and goals, making large-scale comparative studies using these sequences problematic. The level of detail in the annotation regarding preparation techniques is not uniform, and in many cases incomplete (especially with regard to whether or not clones were size-selected). Even in libraries prepared without the two best understood systematics, normalization and subtraction, we find systematic variations in the sampling of transcripts. We have shown that estimates of the cDNA insert and originating transcript length distributions can be used to assess and compensate for systematics of library generation and enable quantitative analysis. Our tools and analyses are available via a web server  to help other researchers separate truly biologically meaningful changes in gene expression or processing from those that arise due to systematic biases.
We downloaded the NCBI dbEST (release 030405, 03/04/2005) , and extracted 935 mouse libraries from a variety of tissues and organs, for a total of approximately 4.3 million ESTs. We used several sources for transcript reference sets, including 26,000 sequences from NCBI's mouse RefSeq transcript set , 20,515 non-redundant transcript sequences from ENSEMBL, version 27.33c , and the set of 39,000 transcripts implied by all putative mouse 3'-processing sites in PACdb . Since EST libraries can contain contaminant sequences , we filtered and eliminated ESTs with evidence of vector/linker, E.coli, mitochondrial, or non-protein-coding RNAs. The filtered EST sequences were subsequently aligned to the reference transcripts using BLAT . BLAT was chosen based on execution and ease of use, however, since we are looking for very high quality alignments of ESTs to mRNA sequences, the alignment problem is conceptually quite easy, and the choice of alignment tool is essentially immaterial. Each EST-transcript alignment was ranked in terms of quality and EST coverage, as defined in Equation 1 and 2.
alignmentScore = m - n - g (1)
where m, n, and g denote the count of matched, mismatched, and gapped positions, respectively, in the alignment. We retained only alignments for which coverageOnEST was greater than or equal to 0.9. If more than one reference transcript was aligned above this threshold, the alignment with the best alignmentScore was selected. In case of a tie, one transcript was selected at random.
For comparison of distributions, many metrics are available, including Euclidean distance, and Pearson or Spearman Correlation. We used a normalized L-Divergence , which is based on Shannon's entropy and is defined in Equation 3:
where p1 and p2 denote the two density distributions being compared. This metric is bounded between 0 and 1, and furthermore has shown to be robust under a wide variability in probability distributions [42, 43]. To characterize library-specific changes in 3'-processing, we used the ESTs from each library to identify probable 3'-processing sites as described previously . Projected 3'-UTR lengths were calculated by measuring the genomic separation between the 3'-processing site and the stop codon of the assigned gene. Putative 3'-processing sites for a given EST library are computationally normalized, such that all statistical analysis (e.g., 3'-UTR length distributions) is performed on the set of unique sites, with no weight given to EST copy numbers.
We used an empirically determined distribution of 3'-UTR lengths as a function of transcript length (available in the supplement) as part of a two-step sampling process to generate an expected 3'-UTR length distribution for each mouse EST library. We first randomly sampled transcript lengths according to the library's estimated distribution, which was determined as shown in Figure 5. For each transcript length drawn, a second random draw was made from the 3'-UTR length distribution indicated from the PACdb data .
The authors thank colleagues, Jesse Salisbury, Michael Brockman and Priyam Singh for valuable discussions and help with data extraction data, Gary Churchill, Aaron Brown, and Derry Roopenian for critical review of the manuscript, and three anonymous reviewers for several helpful suggestions. The authors are also extremely grateful for the careful and detailed annotations produced by the creators of the NIH Brain Map  EST libraries. This work was partly supported by NIH/NCRR INBRE Maine contract 2 P20 RR16463-04, NIH/NICHD contract HD037102-07, and NSF contract DBI-0331497.
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