Differential Isoform Expression With RNA-Seq: Are We Really There Yet?

[This article was first published on Getting Genetics Done, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers]. (You can report issue about the content on this page here)
Want to share your content on R-bloggers? click here if you have a blog, or here if you don't.

In case you missed it, a new paper was published in Nature Biotechnology on a method for detecting isoform-level differential expression with RNA-seq Data:

Trapnell, Cole, et al. “Differential analysis of gene regulation at transcript resolution with RNA-seq.” Nature Biotechnology (2012).


RNA-seq enables transcript-level resolution of gene expression, but there is no proven methodology for simultaneously accounting for biological variability across replicates and uncertainty in mapping fragments to isoforms. One of the most commonly used workflows is to map reads with a tool like Tophat or STAR, use a tool like HTSeq to count the number of reads overlapping a gene, then use a negative-binomial count-based approach such as edgeR or DESeq to assess differential expression at the gene level.  

Figure 1 in the paper illustrates the problem with existing approaches, which only count the number of fragments originating from either the entire gene or constitutive exons only. 

Excerpt from figure 1 from the Cuffdiff 2 paper.

In the top row, a change in gene expression is undetectable by counting reads mapping to any exon, and is underestimated if counting only constitutive exons. In the middle row, an apparent change would be detected, but in the wrong direction if using a count-based method alone rather than accounting for which transcript a read comes from and how long that transcript is. How often situations like the middle row happen in reality, that’s anyone’s guess.


The method presented in this paper, popularized by the cuffdiff method in the Cufflinks software package, claims to address both of these problems simultaneously by modeling variability in the number of fragments generated by each transcript across biological replicates using a beta negative binomial mixture distribution that accounts for both sources of variability in a transcript’s measured expression level. This so-called transcript deconvolution is not computationally trivial, and incredibly difficult to explain, but failure to account for the uncertainty (measurement error) from which transcript a fragment originates from can result in a high false-positive rate, especially when there is significant differential regulation of isoforms. Compared to existing methods, the procedure described claims equivalent sensitivity with a much lower false-positive rate when there is substantial isoform-level variability in gene expression between conditions. 


Importantly, the manuscript also addresses and points out weaknesses several undocumented “alternative” workflows that are discussed often on forums like SEQanswers and anecdotally at meetings. These alternative workflows are variations on a theme: combining transcript-level fragment count estimates (like estimates from Cufflinks, eXpress, or RSEM mapping to a transcriptome), with downstream count-based analysis tools like edgeR/DESeq (both R/Bioconductor packages). This paper points out that none of these tools were meant to be used this way, and doing so violates assumptions of underlying statistics used by  both procedures. However, the authors concede that the variance modeling strategies of edgeR and DESeq are robust, and thus assessed the performance of these “alternative” workflows. The results of those experiments show that the algorithm presented in this paper, cuffdiff 2, outperforms other alternative hybrid Cufflinks/RSEM + edgeR/DESeq workflows [see supplementary figure 77 (yes, 77!]).


In theory (and in the simulation studies presented here, see further comments below), the methodology presented here seems to outperform any other competing workflow. So why isn’t everyone using it, and why is there so much grumbling about it on forums and at meetings? For many (myself included), the biggest issue is one of reproducibility. There are many discussions about cufflinks/cuffdiff providing drastically different results from one version to the next (see here, here, herehere, and here, for a start). The core I run operates in a production environment where everything I do must be absolutely transparent and reproducible. Reporting drastically different results to my collaborators whenever I update the tools I’m using is very alarming to a biologist, and reduces their confidence in the service I provide and the tools I use. 

Furthermore, a recent methods paper recently compared their tool, DEXSeq, to several different versions of cuffdiff. Here, the authors performed two comparisons: a “proper” comparison, where replicates of treatments (T1-T3) were compared to replicates of controls (C1-C4), and a “mock” comparison, where controls (e.g. C1+C3) were compared to other controls (C2+C4). The most haunting result is shown below, where the “proper” comparison finds relatively few differentially expressed genes, while the “mock” comparison of controls versus other controls finds many, many more differentially expressed genes, and an increasing number with newer versions of cufflinks:

Table S1 from the DEXSeq paper.
This comparison predates the release of Cuffdiff 2, so perhaps this alarming trend ceases with the newer release of Cufflinks. However, it is worth noting that these data shown here are from a real dataset, where all the comparisons in the new Cuffdiff 2 paper were done with simulations. Having done some method development myself, I realize how easy it is to construct a simulation scenario to support nearly any claim you’d like to make.


Most RNA-seq folks would say that the field has a good handle on differential expression at the gene level, while differential expression at isoform-level resolution is still under development. I would tend to agree with this statement, but if cases as presented in Figure 1 of this paper are biologically important and widespread (they very well may be), then perhaps we have some re-thinking to do, even with what we thought were “simple” analyses at the gene level. 

What’s your workflow for RNA-seq analysis? Discuss.

To leave a comment for the author, please follow the link and comment on their blog: Getting Genetics Done.

R-bloggers.com offers daily e-mail updates about R news and tutorials about learning R and many other topics. Click here if you're looking to post or find an R/data-science job.
Want to share your content on R-bloggers? click here if you have a blog, or here if you don't.

Never miss an update!
Subscribe to R-bloggers to receive
e-mails with the latest R posts.
(You will not see this message again.)

Click here to close (This popup will not appear again)