Follow the Data

A data driven blog

Deep learning and genomics: the splicing code [and breast cancer features]

Last summer, I wrote a little bit about potential applications of deep learning to genomics. What I had in mind then was (i) to learn a hierarchy of cell types based on single-cell RNA sequencing data (with gene expression measures in the form of integers or floats as inputs) and (ii) to discover features in metagenomics data (based on short sequence snippets; k-mers). I had some doubts regarding the latter application because I was not sure how much the system could learn from short k-mers. Well, now someone has tried deep learning from DNA sequence features!

Let’s back up a little bit. One of many intriguing questions in biology is exactly how splicing works. A lot is known about the rules controlling it but not everything. A recent article in Science, The human splicing code reveals new insights into the genetic determinants of disease (unfortunately paywalled), used a machine learning approach (ensembles of neural networks) to predict splicing events and the effects of single-base mutations on the same using only DNA sequence information as input. Melissa Gymrek has a good blog post on the paper, so I won’t elaborate too much. Importantly though, in this paper the features are still hand-crafted (there are 1393 sequence based features).

In an extension of this work, the same group used deep learning to actually learn the features from the sequence data. Hannes Bretschneider posted this presentation from NIPS 2014 describing the work, and it is very interesting. They used a convolutional network that was able to discover things like the reading frame (the three-nucleotide periodicity resulting from how amino acids are encoded in protein-coding DNA stretches) and known splicing signals.

They have also made available a GPU-accelerated deep learning library for DNA sequence data for Python: Hebel. Right now it seems like only feedforward nets are available (not the convolutional nets mentioned in the talk). I am currently trying to install the package on my Mac.

Needless to say, I think this is a very interesting development and I hope to try this approach on some entirely different problem.

Edit 2015-01-06. Well, what do you know! Just found out that my suggestion (i) has been tried as well. At the currently ongoing PSB’15 conference, Jie Tan has presented work using a denoising autoencoder network to learn a representation of breast cancer gene expression data. The learned features were shown to represent things like tumor vs. normal tissue status, estrogen receptor (ER) status and molecular subtypes. I had thought that there wasn’t enough data yet to support this kind of approach (and even told someone who suggested using The Cancer Genome Atlas [TCGA] data as much at a data science workshop last month – this work uses TCGA data as well as data from METABRIC), and the authors remark in the paper that it is surprising that the method seems to work so well. Previously my thinking was that we needed to await the masses of single-cell gene expression data that are going to come out in the coming years.

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