Assessing the impact of human genome annotation choice on RNA-seq expression estimates

Genome annotation is a crucial component of RNA-seq data analysis. Much effort has been devoted to producing an accurate and rational annotation of the human genome. An annotated genome provides a comprehensive catalogue of genomic functional elements. Currently, at least six human genome annotations are publicly available, including AceView Genes, Ensembl Genes, H-InvDB Genes, RefSeq Genes, UCSC Known Genes, and Vega Genes. Characteristics of these annotations differ because of variations in annotation strategies and information sources. When performing RNA-seq data analysis, researchers need to choose a genome annotation. However, the effect of genome annotation choice on downstream RNA-seq expression estimates is still unclear. This study (1) investigates the effect of different genome annotations on RNA-seq quantification and (2) provides guidelines for choosing a genome annotation based on research focus.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology define the complexity of human genome annotations in terms of the number of genes, isoforms, and exons. This definition facilitates an investigation of potential relationships between complexity and variations in RNA-seq quantification. They apply several evaluation metrics to demonstrate the impact of genome annotation choice on RNA-seq expression estimates. In the mapping stage, the least complex genome annotation, RefSeq Genes, appears to have the highest percentage of uniquely mapped short sequence reads. In the quantification stage, RefSeq Genes results in the most stable expression estimates in terms of the average coefficient of variation over all genes. Stable expression estimates in the quantification stage translate to accurate statistics for detecting differentially expressed genes. They observe that RefSeq Genes produces the most accurate fold-change measures with respect to a ground truth of RT-qPCR gene expression estimates.


Based on the observed variations in the mapping, quantification, and differential expression calling stages, the researchers have demonstrated that the selection of human genome annotation results in different gene expression estimates. When conducting research that emphasizes reproducible and robust gene expression estimates, a less complex genome annotation may be preferred. However, simpler genome annotations may limit opportunities for identifying or characterizing novel transcriptional or regulatory mechanisms. When conducting research that aims to be more exploratory, a more complex genome annotation may be preferred.

Wu PY, Phan JH, Wang MD. (2013) Assessing the impact of human genome annotation choice on RNA-seq expression estimates. BMC Bioinformatics 14 Suppl 11, S8. [article]
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