RNA-Seq technique has been demonstrated as a revolutionary means for exploring transcriptome because it provides deep coverage and base pair-level resolution. RNA-Seq quantification is proven to be an efficient alternative to Microarray technique in gene expression study, and it is a critical component in RNA-Seq differential expression analysis. Most existing RNA-Seq quantification tools require the alignments of fragments to either a genome or a transcriptome, entailing a time-consuming and intricate alignment step. To improve the performance of RNA-Seq quantification, an alignment-free method, Sailfish, has been recently proposed to quantify transcript abundances using all k-mers in the transcriptome, demonstrating the feasibility of designing an efficient alignment-free method for transcriptome quantification. Even though Sailfish is substantially faster than alternative alignment-dependent methods such as Cufflinks, using all k-mers in the transcriptome quantification impedes the scalability of the method.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill propose a novel RNA-Seq quantification method, RNA-Skim, which partitions the transcriptome into disjoint transcript clusters based on sequence similarity, and introduces the notion of sig-mers, which are a special type of k-mers uniquely associated with each cluster. They demonstrate that the sig-mer counts within a cluster are sufficient for estimating transcript abundances with accuracy comparable with any state-of-the-art method. This enables RNA-Skim to perform transcript quantification on each cluster independently, reducing a complex optimization problem into smaller optimization tasks that can be run in parallel. As a result, RNA-Skim uses <4% of the k-mers and <10% of the CPU time required by Sailfish. It is able to finish transcriptome quantification in <10 min per sample by using just a single thread on a commodity computer, which represents >100 speedup over the state-of-the-art alignment-based methods, while delivering comparable or higher accuracy.
Availability: The software is available at http://www.csbio.unc.edu/rs