Normalized counts performs better than TPM, FPKM for hierarchical clustering of replicate RNA-Seq samples

In order to correctly decode phenotypic information from RNA-sequencing (RNA-seq) data, careful selection of the RNA-seq quantification measure is critical for inter-sample comparisons and for downstream analyses, such as differential gene expression between two or more conditions. Several methods have been proposed and continue to be used. However, a consensus has not been reached regarding the best gene expression quantification method for RNA-seq data analysis.

National Cancer Institute researchers used replicate samples from each of 20 patient-derived xenograft (PDX) models spanning 15 tumor types, for a total of 61 human tumor xenograft samples available through the NCI patient-derived model repository (PDMR). They compared the reproducibility across replicate samples based on TPM (transcripts per million), FPKM (fragments per kilobase of transcript per million fragments mapped), and normalized counts using coefficient of variation, intraclass correlation coefficient, and cluster analysis.

Their results revealed that hierarchical clustering on normalized count data tended to group replicate samples from the same PDX model together more accurately than TPM and FPKM data. Furthermore, normalized count data were observed to have the lowest median coefficient of variation (CV), and highest intraclass correlation (ICC) values across all replicate samples from the same model and for the same gene across all PDX models compared to TPM and FPKM data.

Fig. 3

A Bar plot of gene intraclass correlation coefficients (ICCg) across replicate samples of each PDX model using different quantification measures. B Boxplots of model intraclass correlation coefficients (ICCm) for gene expression levels from replicate samples across 20 PDX models using different quantification measures

The researchers provided compelling evidence for a preferred quantification measure to conduct downstream analyses of PDX RNA-seq data. To our knowledge, this is the first comparative study of RNA-seq data quantification measures conducted on PDX models, which are known to be inherently more variable than cell line models. Our findings are consistent with what others have shown for human tumors and cell lines and add further support to the thesis that normalized counts are the best choice for the analysis of RNA-seq data across samples.

Zhao Y, Li MC, Konaté MM, Chen L, Das B, Karlovich C, Williams PM, Evrard YA, Doroshow JH, McShane LM. (2021) TPM, FPKM, or Normalized Counts? A Comparative Study of Quantification Measures for the Analysis of RNA-seq Data from the NCI Patient-Derived Models Repository. J Transl Med 19(1):269. [article]

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