Sample- and gene- based hierarchical cluster analyses have been widely adopted as tools for exploring gene expression data in high-throughput experiments. Gene expression values (read counts) generated by RNA sequencing technology (RNA-seq) are discrete variables with special statistical properties, such as over-dispersion and right-skewness. Additionally, read counts are subject to technology artifacts as differences in sequencing depth. This possesses a challenge to finding distance measures suitable for hierarchical clustering. Normalization and transformation procedures have been proposed to favor the use of Euclidean and correlation based distances. Additionally, novel model-based dissimilarities that account for RNA-seq data characteristics have also been proposed. Adequacy of dissimilarity measures has been assessed using parametric simulations or exemplar datasets that may limit the scope of the conclusions.
Here, researchers at Michigan State University propose the simulation of realistic conditions through creation of plasmode datasets, to assess the adequacy of dissimilarity measures for sample-based hierarchical clustering of RNA-seq data.
Algorithm used to generate plasmodes from Bottomly dataset.
Consistent results were obtained using plasmode datasets based on RNA-seq experiments conducted under widely different conditions. Dissimilarity measures based on Euclidean distance that only considered data normalization or data standardization were not reliable to represent the expected hierarchical structure. Conversely, using either a Poisson-based dissimilarity or a rank correlation based dissimilarity or an appropriate data transformation, resulted in dendrograms that resemble the expected hierarchical structure. Plasmode datasets can be generated for a wide range of scenarios upon which dissimilarity measures can be evaluated for sample-based hierarchical clustering analysis. The researchers show different ways of generating such plasmodes and apply them to the problem of selecting a suitable dissimilarity measure.