scCorr – A novel graph-based k-partitioning approach improves the detection of gene-gene correlations by single-cell RNA sequencing

Gene expression is regulated by transcription factors, cofactors, and epigenetic mechanisms. Coexpressed genes indicate similar functional categories and gene networks. Detecting gene-gene coexpression is important for understanding the underlying mechanisms of cellular function and human diseases. A common practice of identifying coexpressed genes is to test the correlation of expression in a set of genes. In single-cell RNA-seq data, an important challenge is the abundance of zero values, so-called “dropout”, which results in biased estimation of gene-gene correlations for downstream analyses. In recent years, efforts have been made to recover coexpressed genes in scRNA-seq data. Researchers at UPENN Perelman School of Medicine set out to detect coexpressed gene pairs to reduce the “dropout” effect in scRNA-seq data using a novel graph-based k-partitioning method by merging transcriptomically similar cells.

The researchers observed that the number of zero values was reduced among the merged transcriptomically similar cell clusters. Motivated by this observation, they leveraged a graph-based algorithm and develop an R package, scCorr, to recover the missing gene-gene correlation in scRNA-seq data that enables the reliable acquisition of cluster-based gene-gene correlations in three independent scRNA-seq datasets. The graphically partitioned cell clusters did not change the local cell community. For example, in scRNA-seq data from peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs), the gene-gene correlation estimated by scCorr outperformed the correlation estimated by the nonclustering method. Among 85 correlated gene pairs in a set of 100 clusters, scCorr detected 71 gene pairs, while the nonclustering method detected only 4 pairs of a dataset from PBMCs. The performance of scCorr was comparable to those of three previously published methods. As an example of downstream analysis using scCorr, the researchers show that scCorr accurately identified a known cell type (i.e., CD4+ T cells) in PBMCs with a receiver operating characteristic area under the curve of 0.96.

Data analysis workflow

These results demonstrate that scCorr is a robust and reliable graph-based method for identifying correlated gene pairs, which is fundamental to network construction, gene-gene interaction, and cellular omic analyses. scCorr can be quickly and easily implemented to minimize zero values in scRNA-seq analysis.

Availability – scCorr is freely available at

Xu H, Hu Y, Zhang X, Aouizerat BE, Yan C, Xu K. (2022) A novel graph-based k-partitioning approach improves the detection of gene-gene correlations by single-cell RNA sequencing. BMC Genomics 23(1):35. [article]

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