Evaluating methods of inferring gene regulatory networks highlights their lack of performance for single cell gene expression data

Shuonan Chen, Jessica C. Mar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

32 Scopus citations

Abstract

Background: A fundamental fact in biology states that genes do not operate in isolation, and yet, methods that infer regulatory networks for single cell gene expression data have been slow to emerge. With single cell sequencing methods now becoming accessible, general network inference algorithms that were initially developed for data collected from bulk samples may not be suitable for single cells. Meanwhile, although methods that are specific for single cell data are now emerging, whether they have improved performance over general methods is unknown. In this study, we evaluate the applicability of five general methods and three single cell methods for inferring gene regulatory networks from both experimental single cell gene expression data and in silico simulated data. Results: Standard evaluation metrics using ROC curves and Precision-Recall curves against reference sets sourced from the literature demonstrated that most of the methods performed poorly when they were applied to either experimental single cell data, or simulated single cell data, which demonstrates their lack of performance for this task. Using default settings, network methods were applied to the same datasets. Comparisons of the learned networks highlighted the uniqueness of some predicted edges for each method. The fact that different methods infer networks that vary substantially reflects the underlying mathematical rationale and assumptions that distinguish network methods from each other. Conclusions: This study provides a comprehensive evaluation of network modeling algorithms applied to experimental single cell gene expression data and in silico simulated datasets where the network structure is known. Comparisons demonstrate that most of these assessed network methods are not able to predict network structures from single cell expression data accurately, even if they are specifically developed for single cell methods. Also, single cell methods, which usually depend on more elaborative algorithms, in general have less similarity to each other in the sets of edges detected. The results from this study emphasize the importance for developing more accurate optimized network modeling methods that are compatible for single cell data. Newly-developed single cell methods may uniquely capture particular features of potential gene-gene relationships, and caution should be taken when we interpret these results.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number232
JournalBMC Bioinformatics
Volume19
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Jun 19 2018

Keywords

  • Bayesian network
  • Correlation network
  • Gene regulatory network
  • Single cell genomics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Structural Biology
  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Applied Mathematics

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