A digital cell sorter for identification of cell types from single cell RNA-sequencing clusters

Single cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-seq) brings unprecedented opportunities for mapping the heterogeneity of complex cellular environments such as bone marrow, and provides insight into many cellular processes. Single cell RNA-seq has a far larger fraction of missing data reported as zeros (dropouts) than traditional bulk RNA-seq, and unsupervised clustering combined with Principal Component Analysis (PCA) can be used to overcome this limitation. After clustering, however, one has to interpret the average expression of markers on each cluster to identify the corresponding cell types, and this is normally done by hand by an expert curator.

Michigan State University researchers  have developed a computational tool for processing single cell RNA-seq data that uses a voting algorithm to automatically identify cells based on approval votes received by known molecular markers. Using a stochastic procedure that accounts for imbalances in the number of known molecular signatures for different cell types, the method computes the statistical significance of the final approval score and automatically assigns a cell type to clusters without an expert curator. The researchers demonstrate the utility of the tool in the analysis of eight samples of bone marrow from the Human Cell Atlas. The tool provides a systematic identification of cell types in bone marrow based on a list of markers of immune cell types, and incorporates a suite of visualization tools that can be overlaid on a t-SNE representation.


Algorithm schematic. Illustration of the methodology with the two main modules highlighted. The novel polling algorithm for cell identification is implemented in the second highlighted module

This methodology assures that extensive marker to cell type matching information is taken into account in a systematic way when assigning cell clusters to cell types. Moreover, the method allows for a high throughput processing of multiple scRNA-seq datasets, since it does not involve an expert curator, and it can be applied recursively to obtain cell sub-types. The software is designed to allow the user to substitute the marker to cell type matching information and apply the methodology to different cellular environments.

Availability – The software is freely available as a Python package at https://github.com/sdomanskyi/DigitalCellSorter .

Domanskyi S, Szedlak A, Hawkins NT, Wang J, Paternostro G, Piermarocchi C. (2019) Polled Digital Cell Sorter (p-DCS): Automatic identification of hematological cell types from single cell RNA-sequencing clusters. BMC Bioinformatics 20(1):369. [article]

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