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Statistical evaluation of methods for identification of differentially abundant genes in comparative metagenomics

Journal article
Authors Viktor Jonsson
Tobias Österlund
Olle Nerman
Erik Kristiansson
Published in BMC Genomics
Volume 17
ISSN 1471-2164
Publication year 2016
Published at Department of Mathematical Sciences
Department of Mathematical Sciences, Mathematical Statistics
Language en
Keywords Environmental sequencing, Next generation sequencing, Categorical data analysis, Differential, false discovery rate
Subject categories Mathematics


Background: Metagenomics is the study of microbial communities by sequencing of genetic material directly from environmental or clinical samples. The genes present in the metagenomes are quantified by annotating and counting the generated DNA fragments. Identification of differentially abundant genes between metagenomes can provide important information about differences in community structure, diversity and biological function. Metagenomic data is however high-dimensional, contain high levels of biological and technical noise and have typically few biological replicates. The statistical analysis is therefore challenging and many approaches have been suggested to date. Results: In this article we perform a comprehensive evaluation of 14 methods for identification of differentially abundant genes between metagenomes. The methods are compared based on the power to detect differentially abundant genes and their ability to correctly estimate the type I error rate and the false discovery rate. We show that sample size, effect size, and gene abundance greatly affect the performance of all methods. Several of the methods also show non-optimal model assumptions and biased false discovery rate estimates, which can result in too large numbers of false positives. We also demonstrate that the performance of several of the methods differs substantially between metagenomic data sequenced by different technologies. Conclusions: Two methods, primarily designed for the analysis of RNA sequencing data (edgeR and DESeq2) together with a generalized linear model based on an overdispersed Poisson distribution were found to have best overall performance. The results presented in this study may serve as a guide for selecting suitable statistical methods for identification of differentially abundant genes in metagenomes.

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