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Archive for the category “Research”

Finding communities in the Swedish Twitterverse with a mention graph approach

Mattias Östmar and me have published an analysis of the “big picture” of discourse in the Swedish Twitterverse that we have been working on for a while, on and off. Mattias hatched the idea to take a different perspective from looking at keywords or numbers of followers or tweets, and instead try to focus on engagement and interaction by looking at reciprocal mention graphs – graphs where two users get a link between them if both have mentioned each other at least once (as happens by default when you reply to a tweet, for example.) He then applied an eigenvector centrality measure to that network and was able to measure the influence of each user in that way (described in Swedish here).

In the present analysis we went further and tried to identify communities in the mention network by clustering the graph. After trying some different methods we eventually went with Infomap, a very general information-theory based method (it handles both directed and undirected, weighted and unweighted networks, and can do multi-level decompositions) that seems to work well for this purpose. Infomap not only detects clusters but also ranks each user by a PageRank measure so that the centrality score comes for free.

We immediately recognized from scanning the top accounts in each cluster that there seemed to be definite themes to the clusters. The easiest to pick out were Norwegian and Finnish clusters where most of the tweets were in those languages (but some were in Swedish, which had caused those accounts to be flagged as “Swedish”.) But it was also possible to see (at this point still by recognizing names of famous accounts) that there were communities that seemed to be about national defence or the state of Swedish schools, for instance. This was quite satisfying as we hadn’t used the actual contents of the tweets – no keywords or key phrases – just the connectivity of the network!

Still, knowing about famous accounts can only take us so far, so we did a relatively simple language analysis of the top 20 communities by size. We took all the tweets from all users in those communities, built a corpus of words of those, and calculated the TF-IDFs for each word in each community. In this way, we were able to identify words that were over-represented in a community with respect to the other communities.

The words that feel out of this analysis were in many cases very descriptive of the communities, and apart from the school and defence clusters we quickly identified an immigration-critical cluster, a cluster about stock trading, a sports cluster, a cluster about the boy band The Fooo Conspiracy, and many others. (In fact, we have since discovered that there are a lot of interesting and thematically very specific clusters beyond the top 20 which we are eager to explore!)

As detailed in the analysis blog post, the list of top ranked accounts in our defence community was very close to a curated list of important defence Twitter accounts recently published by a major Swedish daily. This probably means that we can identify the most important Swedish tweeps for many different topics without manual curation.

This work was done on tweets from 2015, but in mid-January we will repeat the analysis on 2016 data.

There is some code describing what we did on GitHub.


Cumulative biology and meta-analysis of gene expression data

In talks that I have given in the past few years, I have often made the point that most of genomics has not been “big data” in the usual sense, because although the raw data files can often be large, they are often processed in a more or less predictable way until they are “small” (e.g., tables of gene expression measurements or genetic variants in a small number of samples). This in turn depends on the fact that it is hard and expensive to obtain biological samples, so in a typical genomics project the sample size is small (from just a few to tens or in rare cases hundreds or thousands) while the dimensionality is large (e.g. 20,000 genes, 10,000 proteins or a million SNPs). This is in contrast to many “canonical big data” scenarios where one has a large number of examples (like product purchases) with a small dimensionality (maybe the price, category and some other properties of the product.)

Because of these issues, I have been hopeful about using published data on e.g. gene expression based on RNA sequencing or on metagenomics to draw conclusions based on data from many studies. In the former case (gene expression/RNA-seq) it could be to build classifiers for predicting tissue or cell type for a given gene expression profile. In the latter case (metagenomics/metatranscriptomics, maybe even metaproteomics) it could also be to build classifiers but also to discover completely new varieties of e.g. bacteria or viruses from the “biological dark matter” that makes up a large fraction of currently generated metagenomics data. These kinds of analysis are usually called meta-analysis, but I am fond of the term cumulative biology, which I came across in a paper by Samuel Kaski and colleagues (Toward Computational Cumulative Biology by Combining Models of Biological Datasets.)

Of course, there is nothing new about meta-analysis or cumulative biology – many “cumulative” studies have been published about microarray data – but nevertheless, I think that some kind of threshold has been crossed when it comes to really making use of the data deposited in public repositories. There has been development both in APIs allowing access to public data, in data structures that have been designed to deal specifically with large sequence data, and in automating analysis pipelines.

Below are some interesting papers and packages that are all in some way related to analyzing public gene expression data in different ways. I annotate each resource with a couple of tags.

Sequence Bloom Trees. [data structures] These data structures (described in the paper Fast search of thousands of short-read sequencing experiments) allow indexing of a very large number of sequences into a data structure that can be rapidly queried with your own data. I first tried it about a year ago and found it to be useful to check for the presence of short snippets of interest (RNA sequences corresponding to expressed peptides of a certain type) in published transcriptomes. The authors have made available a database of 2,652 RNA-seq experiments from human brain, breast and blood which served as a very useful reference point.

The Lair. [pipelines, automation, reprocessing] Lior Pachter and the rest of the gang behind popular RNA-seq analysis tools Kallisto and Sleuth have taken their concept further with Lair, a platform for interactive re-analysis of published RNA-seq datasets. They use a Snakemake based analysis pipeline to process and analyze experiments in a consistent way – see the example analyses listed here. Anyone can request a similar re-analysis of a published data set by providing a config file, design matrix and other details as described here.

Toil. [pipelines, automation, reprocessing] The abstract of this paper, which was recently submitted to bioRxiv, states: Toil is portable, open-source workflow software that supports contemporary workflow definition languages and can be used to securely and reproducibly run scientific workflows efficiently at large-scale. To demonstrate Toil, we processed over 20,000 RNA-seq samples to create a consistent meta-analysis of five datasets free of computational batch effects that we make freely available. Nearly all the samples were analysed in under four days using a commercial cloud cluster of 32,000 preemptable cores. The authors used their workflow software to quantify expression in  four studies: The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), Therapeutically Applicable Research To Generate Effective Treatments (TARGET), Pacific Pediatric Neuro-Oncology Consortium (PNOC), and the Genotype Tissue Expression Project (GTEx).

EBI’s RNA-seq-API. [API, discovery, reprocessing, compendium] The RESTful RNA-seq Analysis API provided by the EBI currently contains raw, FPKM and TPM gene and exon counts for a staggering 265,000 public sequencing runs in 264 different species, as well as ftp locations of CRAM, bigWig and bedGraph files. See the documentation here.

Digital Expression Explorer. [reprocessing, compendium] This resource contains hundreds of thousands of uniformly processed RNA-seq data sets (e.g., >73,000 human data sets and >97,000 mouse ones). The data sets were processed into gene-level counts, which led to some Twitter debate between the transcript-level quantification hardliners and the gene-count-tolerant communities, if I may label the respective camps in that way. These data sets can be downloaded in bulk.

CompendiumDb. [API, discovery] This is an R package that facilitates the programmatic retrieval of functional genomics data (i.e., often gene expression data) from the Gene Expression Omnibus (GEO), one of the main repositories for this kind of data.

Omics Discovery Index (OmicsDI). [discovery] This is described as a “Knowledge Discovery framework across heterogeneous data (genomics, proteomics and metabolomics)” and is mentioned here both because a lot of it is gene expression data and because it seems like a good resource for finding data across different experimental types for the same conditions.

MetaRNASeq. [discovery] A browser-based query system for finding RNA-seq experiments that fulfill certain search criteria. Seems useful when looking for data sets from a certain disease state, for example.

Tradict. [applications of meta-analysis] In this study, the authors analyzed 23,000 RNA-seq experiments to find out whether gene expression profiles could be reconstructed from a small subset of just 100 marker genes (out of perhaps 20,000 available genes). The author claims that it works well and the manuscript contains some really interesting graphs showing, for example, how most of the variation in gene expression is driven by developmental stage and tissue.

In case you think that these types of meta-analysis are only doable with large computing clusters with lots of processing power and storage, you’ll be happy to find out that it is easy to analyze RNA-seq experiments in a streaming fashion, without having to download FASTQ or even BAM files to disk (Valentine Svensson wrote a nice blog post about this), and with tools such as Kallisto, it does not really take that long to quantify the expression levels in a sample.

Finally, I’ll acknowledge that the discovery-oriented tools above (APIs, metadata search etc) still work on the basis of knowing what kind of data set you are looking for. But another interesting way of searching for expression data would be querying by content, that is, showing a search system the data you have at hand and asking it to provide the data sets most similar to it. This is discussed in the cumulative biology paper mentioned at the start of this blog post: “Instead of searching for datasets that have been described similarly, which may not correspond to a statistical similarity in the datasets themselves, we would like to conduct that search in a data-driven way, using as the query the dataset itself or a statistical (rather than a semantic) description of it.” In a similar vein, Titus Brown has discussed using MinHash signatures for identifying similar samples and finding collaborators.

List of deep learning implementations in biology

[Note: this list now lives at GitHub, where it will be continuously updated, so please go there instead!]

I’m going to start collecting papers on, and implementations of, deep learning in biology (mostly genomics, but other areas as well) on this page. It’s starting to get hard to keep up! For the purposes of this list, I’ll consider things like single-layer autoencoders, although not literally “deep”, to qualify for inclusion. The categorizations will by necessity be arbitrary and might be changed around from time to time.

In parallel, I’ll try to post some of these on gitxiv as well under the tag bioinformatics plus other appropriate tags.

Please let me know about the stuff I missed!


Neural graph fingerprints [github][gitxiv]

A convolutional net that can learn features which are useful for predicting properties of novel molecules; “molecular fingerprints”. The net works on a graph where atoms are nodes and bonds are edges. Developed by the group of Ryan Adams, who co-hosts the very good Talking Machines podcast.


Pcons2 – Improved Contact Predictions Using the Recognition of Protein Like Contact Patterns [web interface]

Here, a “deep random forest” with five layers is used to improve predictions of which residues (amino acids) in a protein are physically interacting which each other. This is useful for predicting the overall structure of the protein (a very hard problem.)


Gene expression

In modeling gene expression, the inputs are typically numerical values (integers or floats) estimating how much RNA is produced from a DNA template in a particular cell type or condition.

ADAGE – Analysis using Denoising Autoencoders of Gene Expression [github][gitxiv]

This is a Theano implementation of stacked denoising autoencoders for extracting relevant patterns from large sets of gene expression data, a kind of feature construction approach if you will. I have played around with this package quite a bit myself. The authors initially published a conference paper applying the model to a compendium of breast cancer (microarray) gene expression data, and more recently posted a paper on bioRxiv where they apply it to all available expression data (microarray and RNA-seq) on the pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa. (I understand that this manuscript will soon be published in a journal.)

Learning structure in gene expression data using deep architectures [paper]

This is also about using stacked denoising autoencoders for gene expression data, but there is no available implementation (as far as I could tell). Included here for the sake of completeness (or something.)

Gene expression inference with deep learning [github][paper]

This deals with a specific prediction task, namely to predict the expression of specified target genes from a panel of about 1,000 pre-selected “landmark genes”. As the authors explain, gene expression levels are often highly correlated and it may be a cost-effective strategy in some cases to use such panels and then computationally infer the expression of other genes. Based on Pylearn2/Theano.

Learning a hierarchical representation of the yeast transcriptomic machinery using an autoencoder model [paper]

The authors use stacked autoencoders to learn biological features in yeast from thousands of microarrays. They analyze the hidden layer representations and show that these encode biological information in a hierarchical way, so that for instance transcription factors are represented in the first hidden layer.

Predicting enhancers and regulatory regions

Here the inputs are typically “raw” DNA sequence, and convolutional networks (or layers) are often used to learn regularities within the sequence. Hat tip to Melissa Gymrek ( for pointing out some of these.

DanQ: a hybrid convolutional and recurrent deep neural network for quantifying the function of DNA sequences [github][gitxiv]

Made for predicting the function of non-protein coding DNA sequence. Uses a convolution layer to capture regulatory motifs (i e single DNA snippets that control the expression of genes, for instance), and a recurrent layer (of the LSTM type) to try to discover a “grammar” for how these single motifs work together. Based on Keras/Theano.

Basset – learning the regulatory code of the accessible genome with deep convolutional neural networks [github][gitxiv]

Based on Torch, this package focuses on predicting the accessibility (or “openness”) of the chromatin – the physical packaging of the genetic information (DNA+associated proteins). This can exist in more condensed or relaxed states in different cell types, which is partly influenced by the DNA sequence (not completely, because then it would not differ from cell to cell.)

DeepSEA – Predicting effects of noncoding variants with deep learning–based sequence model [web server][paper]

Like the packages above, this one also models chromatin accessibility as well as the binding of certain proteins (transcription factors) to DNA and the presence of so-called histone marks that are associated with changes in accessibility. This piece of software seems to focus a bit more explicitly than the others on predicting how single-nucleotide mutations affect the chromatin structure. Published in a high-profile journal (Nature Methods).

DeepBind – Predicting the sequence specificities of DNA- and RNA-binding proteins by deep learning [code][paper]

This is from the group of Brendan Frey in Toronto, and the authors are also involved in the company Deep Genomics. DeepBind focuses on predicting the binding specificities of DNA-binding or RNA-binding proteins, based on experiments such as ChIP-seq, ChIP-chip, RIP-seq,  protein-binding microarrays, and HT-SELEX. Published in a high-profile journal (Nature Biotechnology.)

PEDLA: predicting enhancers with a deep learning-based algorithmic framework [code][paper]

This package is for predicting enhancers (stretches of DNA that can enhance the expression of a gene under certain conditions or in a certain kind of cell, often working at a distance from the gene itself) based on heterogeneous data from (e.g.) the ENCODE project, using 1,114 features altogether.

DEEP: a general computational framework for predicting enhancers

Genome-Wide Prediction of cis-Regulatory Regions Using Supervised Deep Learning Methods (and several other papers applying various kinds of deep networks to regulatory region prediction) [code][one paper out of several]

Wyeth Wasserman’s group have made a kind of toolkit (based on the Theano tutorials) for applying different kinds of deep learning architectures to cis-regulatory element (DNA stretches that can modulate the expression of a nearby gene) prediction. They use a specific “feature selection layer” in their nets to restrict the number of features in the models. This is implemented as an additional sparse one-to-one linear layer between the input layer and the first hidden layer of a multi-layer perceptron.


Predicting DNA Methylation State of CpG Dinucleotide Using Genome Topological Features and Deep Networks [paper][web server]

This implementation uses a stacked autoencoder with a supervised layer on top of it to predict whether a certain type of genomic region called “CpG islands” (stretches with an overrepresentation of a sequence pattern where a C nucleotide is followed by a G) is methylated (a chemical modification to DNA that can modify its function, for instance methylation in the vicinity of a gene is often but not always related to the down-regulation or silencing of that gene.) This paper uses a network structure where the hidden layers in the autoencoder part have a much larger number of nodes than the input layer, so it would have been nice to read the authors’ thoughts on what the hidden layers represent.

Single-cell applications

CellCnn – Representation Learning for detection of disease-associated cell subsets

This is a convolutional network (Lasagne/Theano) based approach for “Representation Learning for detection of phenotype-associated cell subsets.” It is interesting because most neural network approaches for high-dimensional molecular measurements (such as those in the gene expression category above) have used autoencoders rather than convolutional nets.

Population genetics

Deep learning for population genetic inference [paper]

No implementation available yet but says an open-source one will be made available soon.


This is a harder category to populate because a lot of theoretical work on neural networks and deep learning has been intertwined with neuroscience. For example, recurrent neural networks have long been used for modeling e.g. working memory and attention. In this post I am really looking for pure applications of DL rather than theoretical work, although that is extremely interesting.

For more applied DL, I have found

Deep learning for neuroimaging: a validation study [paper]

SPINDLE: SPINtronic deep learning engine for large-scale neuromorphic computing [paper]

I’m sure there are many others. Maybe digging up some seminal neuroscience papers modeling brain areas and functions with different kinds of neural networks would be a worthy topic for a future blog post.



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.

Analytics challenges in genomics

Continuing on the theme of data analysis and genomics, here is a presentation I gave for the Data Mining course at Uppsala university in October this year. It talks a little bit about massively parallel DNA sequencing, then goes on to mention grand visions such as sequencing millions of genomes, discovering new species by metagenomics, “genomic observatories” etc, then goes into the practical difficulties and finally suggests some strategies like prediction contests. Enjoy!

Synapse – a Kaggle for molecular medicine?

I have frequently extolled the virtues of collaborative crowdsourced research, online prediction contests and similar subjects on these pages. Almost 2 years ago, I also mentioned Sage Bionetworks, which had started some interesting efforts in this area at the time.

Last Thursday, I (together with colleagues) got a very interesting update on what Sage is up to at the moment, and those things tie together a lot of threads that I am interested in – prediction contests, molecular diagnostics, bioinformatics, R and more. We were visited by Adam Margolin, who is director of computational biology at Sage (one of their three units).

He described how Sage is compiling and organizing public molecular data (such as that contained in The Cancer Genome Atlas) and developing tools for working with it, but more importantly, that they had hit upon prediction contests as the most effective way to generate modelling strategies for prognostic and diagnostic applications based on these data. (As an aside, Sage now appears to be focusing mostly on cancers rather than all types of disease as earlier; applications include predicting cancer subtype severity and survival outcomes.) Adam thinks that objectively scored prediction contests lets researchers escape from the “self-assessment trap“, where one always unconsciously strives to present the performance of one’s models in the most positive light.

They considered running their competitions on Kaggle (and are still open to it, I think) but given that they already had a good infrastructure for reproducible research, Synapse, they decided to tweak that instead and run the competitions on their own platform. Also, Google donated 50 million core hours (“6000 compute years”) and petabyte-scale storage for the purpose.

There was another reason not to use Kaggle as well. Sage wanted participants to not only upload predictions for which the results is shown on a dynamic leaderboard (which they do), but also to force them to provide runnable code which is actually executed on the Sage platform to generate the predictions. The way it works is that competitors need to use R to build their models, and they need to implement two methods, customTrain() and customPredict() (analogous to the train() and predict() methods implemented by most or all statistical learning methods in R) which are called by the server software. Many groups do not like to use R for their model development but there are ways to easily wrap arbitrary types of code inside R.

The first full-scale competition run on Synapse (which is, BTW, not only a competition platform but a “collaborative compute space that allows scientists to share and analyze data together”, as the web page states) was the Sage/DREAM Breast Cancer Prognosis Challenge, which uses data from a cohort of almost 2,000 breast cancer patients. (The DREAM project is itself worthy of another blog post as a very early (in its seventh year now, I think) platform for objective assessment of predictive models and reverse engineering in computational biology, but I digress …)

The goal of the Sage/DREAM breast cancer prognosis challenge is to find out whether it is possible to identify reliable prognostic molecular signatures for this disease. This question, in a generalized form (can we define diseases, subtypes and outcomes from a molecular pattern?), is still a hot one after many years of a steady stream of published gene expression signatures that have usually failed to replicate, or are meaningless (see e g Most Random Gene Expression Signatures Are Significantly Associated with Breast Cancer Outcome). Another competition that I plugged on this blog, SBV Improver, also had as its goal to assess if informative signatures could be found and its outcomes were disclosed recently. The result there was that out of four diseases addressed (multiple sclerosis, lung cancer, psoriasis, COPD), the molecular portrait (gene expression pattern) for one of them (COPD) did not add any information at all to known clinical characteristics, while for the others the gene expression helped to some extent, notably in psoriasis where it could discriminate almost perfectly between healthy and diseased tissue.

In the Sage/DREAM challenge, the cool thing is that you can directly (after registering an account) lift the R code from the leaderboard and try to reproduce the methods. The team that currently leads, Attractor Metagenes, has implemented a really cool (and actually quite simple) approach to finding “metagenes” (weighted linear combinations of actual genes) by an iterative approach that converges to certain characteristic metagenes, thus the “attractor” in the name. There is a paper on arXiv outlining the approach. Adam Margolin said that the authors have had trouble getting the paper published, but the Sage/DREAM competition has at least objectively shown that the method is sound and it should find its way into the computational biology toolbox now. I for one will certainly try it for some of my work projects.

The fact that Synapse stores both data and models in an open way has some interesting implications. For instance, the models can be applied to entirely new data sets, and they can be ensembled very easily (combined to get an average / majority vote / …). In fact, Sage even encourages competitors to make ensemble versions of models on the leaderboard to generate new models while the competition is going on! This is one step beyond Kaggle. Indeed, there is a team (ENSEMBLE) that specializes in this approach and they are currently at #2 on the leaderboard after Attractor Metagenes.

In the end, the winning team will be allowed to publish a paper about how they did it in Science Translational Medicine without peer review – the journal (correctly I think) assumes that the rigorous evaluation process in Synapse is more objective that peer review. Kudos to Science Translational Medicine for that.

There’s a lot more interesting things to mention, like how Synapse is now tackling “pan-cancer analysis” (looking for commonalities between *all* cancers), how they looked at millions of models to find out general rules of thumb about predictive models (discretization makes for worse performance, elastic net algorithms work best on average, prior knowledge and feature engineering is essential for good performance, etc.)
Perhaps the most remarkable thing in all of this, though, is that someone has found a way to build a crowdsourced card game, The Cure, on top of the Sage/DREAM breast cancer prognosis challenge in order to find even better solutions. I have not quite grasped how they did this – the FAQ states:

TheCure was created as a fun way to solicit help in guiding the search for stable patterns that can be used to make biologically and medically important predictions. When people play TheCure they use their knowledge (or their ability to search the Web or their social networks) to make informed decisions about the best combinations of variables (e.g. genes) to use to build predictive patterns. These combos are the ‘hands’ in TheCure card game. Every time a game is played, the hands are evaluated and stored. Eventually predictors will be developed using advanced machine learning algorithms that are informed by the hands played in the game.

But I’ll try The Cure right now and see if I can figure out what it is doing. You’re welcome to join me!

What can “big data” (read “Hadoop”) do for genomics?

Prompted by the recent news that Cloudera and Mount Sinai School of Medicine will collaborate to “solve medical challenges using big data” (more specifically, Cloudera’s Jeff Hammerbacher, ex-big data guru at Facebook, will collaborate with the equally trailblazing mathematician/biologist Eric Schadt at Mount Sinai’s Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology) and that NextBio will collaborate with Intel to “optimize the Hadoop stack and advance big data technologies in medicine”, I would like to offer some random thoughts on possible use cases.

Note that “big data” essentially means “Hadoop” in the above press releases, and that the “medicine” they mention should be understood as “genomic medicine” or just “genomics”. Since I happen to know a thing or two about genomics, I will limit myself to (parts of) genomics and Hadoop/MapReduce in this post. For a good overview of big data and medicine in a broader sense than I can describe here, check out this rather nice GigaOm article.

Existing Hadoop/MapReduce stuff for NGS

In the world of high-throughput, or next-generation sequencing (NGS), which is rapidly becoming more and more indispensable for genomics, there are a few Hadoop-based frameworks that I am aware of and that should probably be mentioned first. Packages like Cloudburst and Crossbow leverage Hadoop to perform “read mapping” (approximate string matching for taking a DNA sequence from the sequencer and figuring out where in a known genome it came from), Myrna and Eoulsan do the same but also extend the workflow to quantifying gene expression and identifying differentially expressed genes based on the sequences, and Contrail does Hadoop-based de novo assembly (piecing together a new genome from sequences without previous knowledge, like an extremely difficult jigsaw puzzle). These are essentially MapReduce implementations of existing software, which is all good and fine, but I haven’t seen these tools being used much so far. Perhaps one reason is that read mapping is usually not a major bottleneck compared to some other steps, and with recently released software such as SeqAlto and SNAP (thx Tom Dyar) (and another package that I’m sure I read about the other day but can’t seem find right now) promising a further 10x-100x speed increase compared to existing tools, there is just not a pressing need at the moment. Contrail, the de novo assembler,  does offer an opportunity for research groups who don’t have access to a very RAM-rich computers (de novo assembly is notoriously memory hungry, with 512 Gb RAM machines often being strained to the limit on certain data sets) to perform assembly on commodity clusters.

Then there are the projects that attempt to build a Hadoop infrastructure for next-generation sequencing, like Seal, which provides “map-reducification” for a number of common NGS operations, or Hadoop-BAM (a library for processing BAM files, a common sequence alignment format, in Hadoop) and SeqPig (a library with import and export functions to allow common bioinformatics formats to be used in Pig).

What Hadoop could be useful for

I’m sure people smarter than me will come up with many different use cases for Hadoop in genomics and medicine. At this point, however, I would suggest these general themes:

  • Statistical associations between various kinds of data vectors – clinical, environmental, molecular, microbial... This is more or less a batch-processing problem and thus suited to Hadoop. NextBio (the company mentioned in the beginning, who are teaming up with Intel) are doing this as a core part of their business; computing correlations between gene expression levels in different tissues, diseases and conditions and clinical information, drug data etc. However, this concept could (and should) be extended to other things like environmental information, lifestyle factors, genetic variants (SNV, structural variations, copy number variations etc.), epigenetic data (chromatic structure, DNA methylation, histone modifications …), personal microbiomes (the gut microbiota in each patient etc.) Of course, collecting and compiling the data to perform these correlations will be hard; a much harder “big data” problem than computing the actual correlations.  SolveBio is a new company that seems to want to understand cancer by compiling vast quantities of data in such a way. This is how they put it in an interview (titled, ambitiously, “The Cloud Will Cure Cancer“): “Patients can measure every feature, as the technology becomes cheaper: genome sequence, gene expression in every accessible tissue, chromatin state, small molecules and metabolites, indigenous microbes, pathogens, etc. These data pools can be created by anyone who has the consent of the patients: universities, hospitals, or companies. The resulting networks, the “data tornado”, will be huge. This will be a huge amount of data and a huge opportunity to use statistical learning for medicine.” In fact, a third recently announced bigdata/genomics collaboration, between Google and the Institute for Systems Biology (ISB), has already started to explore what this type of tools could look like in their Cancer Regulome Explorer. ISB has used the Google Compute Engine to scale a random forest algorithm to 600,000 cores across Google’s global data centers in order to “explore associations between DNA, RNA, epigenetic, and clinical cancer data.” See this case study for some more details (not many more to be honest.)
  • Metagenomics. This means, according to one definition, “the application of modern genomics techniques to the study of communities of microbial organisms directly in their natural environments, bypassing the need for isolation and lab cultivation of individual species.(There is really nothing “meta” about it, it’s just that you are looking at many species at once, which is why it is also called environmental genomics or community genomics in some cases.) For example, Craig Venter’s project to sequence as many living things as possible in the Sargasso sea is metagenomics, as is sequencing samples from the human gut, snot etc. in search of novel bacteria, viruses and fungi (or just characterizing the variety of known ones.) It’s a fascinating field; for an easy introduction, see the TED Talk called “What’s left to explore?” by Nathan Wolfe. Analyzing sequences from metagenomics projects is of course much more difficult than usual, because you are randomly sampling sequences for which you don’t know the source organism but have to infer it in some way. This calls for smart use of proper data structures for indexing and querying, and as much parallelization as possible, very likely in some Hadoopy kind of way. C Titus Brown has written a lot of interesting stuff about the metagenomics data deluge on his blog, Living in an Ivory Basement, where he has explored esoteric and useful things such as probabilistic de Bruijn graphs. Lately, compressive genomics – algorithms that compute directly on compressed genomic data – has become something of a buzz phrase (although similar ideas have been used for quite some time). Some combination of all of these approaches will be needed to combat the inevitable information overload.

Beyond batch processing

In my mind, Hadoop has been associated with batch processing, but today I heard that the newest version of Hadoop not only includes a completely overhauled version of MapReduce called YARN, but it will even allow using other kinds of frameworks, such as streaming real-time analytics frameworks, to operate on the data stored in HDFS. I’ve been thinking about possible applications of stream analytics in next-generation sequencing. Surprisingly, there is already software for streaming quantification of sequences, eXpress – these guys are surely ahead of their time. The immediate use case I can think of is for the USB-stick-sized MinION nanopore sequencer, which reportedly will produce output in a real-time manner (which no sequencers do today as far as I know) so that you can start your analysis while the sequencer is still running. If the vision about “genomic observatories” to “take the planet’s biological pulse” comes true, I’m sure there will be plenty of work to do for the stream analytics clusters of the world …

This has been a rambling post that will probably need a few updates in the coming days – congratulations and thanks if you made it to the end!

Three angles on crowd science

Some recently announced news that illuminate crowd science, advancing science by somehow leveraging a community, from three different angles.

  • The Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center (or Harvard Catalyst) has “launched a pilot service through which researchers at the university can submit computational problems in areas such as genomics, proteomics, radiology, pathology, and epidemiology” via the TopCoder online competitive community for software development and digital creation. One recently started Harvard Catalyst challenge is called FitnessEstimator. The aim of the project is to “use next-generation sequencing data to determine the abundance of specific DNA sequences at multiple time points in order to determine the fitness of specific sequences in the presence of selective pressure. As an example, the project abstract notes that such an approach might be used to measure how certain bacterial sequences become enriched or depleted in the presence of antibiotics.” (the quotes are from a GenomeWeb article that is behind a paywall) I think it’s very interesting to use online software development contests for scientific purposes, as a very useful complement to Kaggle competitions, where the focus is more on data analysis. Sometimes, really good code is important too!
  • This press release describes the idea of connectomics (which is very big in neuroscience circles now) and how the connectomics researcher Sebastian Seung and colleagues have developed a new online game, EyeWire, where players trace neural branches “through images of mouse brain scans by playing a simple online game, helping the computer to color a neuron as if the images were part of a three-dimensional coloring book.” The images are actual data from the lab of professor Winfried Denk. “Humans collectively spend 600 years each day playing Angry Birds. We harness this love of gaming for connectome analysis,” says Prof. Seung in the press release. (For similar online games that benefit research, see e.g. Phylo, FoldIt and EteRNA.)
  • Wisdom of Crowds for Robust Gene Network Inference is a newly published paper in Nature Methods, where the authors looked at a kind of community ensemble prediction method. Let’s back-track a bit. The Dialogue on Reverse Engineering Assessment and Methods (DREAM) initiative is a yearly challenge where contestants try to reverse engineer various kinds of biological networks and/or predict the output of some or all nodes in the network under various conditions. (If it sounds too abstract, go to the link above and check out what the actual challenges have been like.) The DREAM initiative is a nice way to check the performance of the currently touted methods in an unbiased way. In the Nature Methods paper, the authors show that “no single inference method performs optimally across all data sets. In contrast, integration of predictions from multiple inference methods shows robust and high performance across diverse data sets” and that “Our results establish community-based methods as a powerful and robust tool for the inference of transcriptional gene regulatory networks.” So, in a very wisdom-of-crowds manner (as indeed the paper title suggests), it’s better to combine the predictions of all the contestants than just use the best ones. It’s like taking a composite prediction of all Kaggle competitors in a certain contest and observing that this composite prediction was superior to all individual teams’ predictions. I’m sure Kaggle has already done this kind of experiment, does anyone know?

Hello 2012!

The first blog post of the new year. I made some updates to the Swedish big data company list from last year. I’ll recap the additions here so you don’t have to click on that link –

  • Markify is a service that searches a large set of databases for registered trademarks that are similar, in sound or in writing, to a given query – like a name you have thought up for your next killer startup. As described on the company’s website, determining similarity is not that clear-cut, so (according to this write-up) they have adopted a data-driven strategy where they train their algorithm on “actual case literature of disputed trademark claims to help it discover trademarks that were similar enough to be contested.” They claim it’s the worl’d most accurate comprehensive trademark search.
  • alaTest compiles, analyzes and rates product reviews to help customers select the most suitable product for them.
  • Intellus is a business process / business intelligence company. Frankly, these terms and web sites like theirs normally make me fall asleep, but they have an ad for a master’s project out where they propose research to “find and implement an effective way of automating analysis in non-normalized data by applying different approaches of machine learning”, where the “platform for distributed big data analysis is already in place.” They promise a project at “the bleeding edge technology of machine learning and distributed big data analysis.”
  • Although I haven’t listed AstraZeneca as a “big data” company (yet), they seem to be jumping the “data science” train as they are now advertising for “data angels” (!) and “predictive science data experts.”

On the US stage, I’m curious about a new company called BigML, which is apparently trying to tackle a problem that many have thought about or tried to solve, but which has proven very difficult, that is, to provide a user-friendly and general solution for building predictive models based on a data source. A machine learning solution for regular people, as it were. This blog post talks about some of the motivations behind it. I’ve applied for an invite and will write up a blog post if I get the chance to try it.

Finally, I’d like to recommend this Top 10 data mining links of 2011 list. I’m not usually very into top-10 lists, but this one contained some interesting stuff that I had missed. Of course, there is the MIC/MINE method which was published in Science, a clever generalization of correlation that works for non-linear relationships (to over-simplify a bit).  As this blog post puts it, “the consequential metric goes far beyond traditional measures of correlation, and rather towards what I would think of as a general pattern recognition algorithm that is sensitive to any type of systematic pattern between two variables (see the examples in Fig. 2 of the paper).”

Then there are of course the free data analysis textbooks, the free online ML and AI courses and IBM’s systems that defeated human Jeopardy champions, all of which I have covered here (I think.) Finally, there are links to two really cool papers. The first of them, Graphical Inference for Infoviz (where one of the authors is R luminary Hadley Wickham), introduces a very interesting method of “visual hypothesis testing” based on generating “decoy plots” that are based on the null hypothesis distribution, and letting a test person pick out the actual observed data among the decoys. The procedure has been implemented in an R package called nullabor. I really liked their analogy between hypothesis testing and a trial (the term “the statistical justice system”!):

Hypothesis testing is perhaps best understood with an analogy to the criminal justice system. The accused (data set) will be judged guilty or innocent based on the results of a trial (statistical test). Each trial has a defense (advocating for the null hypothesis) and a prosecution (advocating for the alternative hypothesis). On the basis of how evidence (the test statistic) compares to a standard (the p-value), the judge makes a decision to convict (reject the null) or acquit (fail to reject the null hypothesis). Unlike the criminal justice system, in the statistical justice system (SJS) evidence is based on the similarity between the accused and known innocents, using a specific metric defined by the test statistic. The population of innocents, called the null distribution, is generated by the combination of null hypothesis and test statistic. To determine the guilt of the accused we compute the proportion of innocents who look more guilty than the accused. This is the p-value, the probability that the accused would look this guilty if they actually were innocent.

The other very cool article is from Gary King’s lab and deals with the question of comparing different clusterings of data, and specifically determining a useful or insightful clustering for the user. They did this by implementing all (!) known clustering methods plus some new ones in a common interface in an R package. They then cluster text documents using all clustering methods and project the clusterings into a space that can be visualized and interactively explored to get a feeling for what the different methods are doing.

The Neural Phone, Darwin phones and Ali Baba’s data treasure

Just the other day, I listened to a podcast about mobile sensing, where professor Andrew Campbell from the mobile sensing group at Dartmouth College talked about a lot of interesting stuff. In particular, I was captivated by his description of the Neural Phone. Apparently, the idea for it was born when Campbell was out jogging and wanted to be able to phone his wife (or a friend, I don’t remember) without touching the phone. Eventually, he and his group managed to put together an iPhone with a cheap EEG headset so that a particular type of “brain wave”, a so-called P300 potential, could be detected by the headset and used to control the phone. In an app called “Dial Tim”, they demonstrated that you could dial an iPhone contact by thinking (producing a P300 potential) when that person was shown on the phone. A lightweight classifier is used to detect the signal corresponding to the desire to call a certain person. It should be noted that according to this interesting paper, the classifier is still pretty sensitive to the person’s state (sitting, standing etc.)

This opens up possibilities for really wild “mind reading” applications; the authors mention the possibility of sensing the aggregate mood in a room from this kind of neural signals, and also how a foreign language teacher could get real-time statistics on the students’ comprehension from EEG data and thus always know how many of them that actually understood a question.

Of course, there is a sinister aspect to this, namely that stray neural signals “in the wild” could be detected by malicious others. The authors call this scenario, which arises from the way the neural information is transmitted in unencrypted IP packets between iPhones, “neural packets everywhere.”

Intrigued by this, I looked up some other work that Campbell and his group has done on mobile phones and classification. This paper deals with “Darwin phones”; a framework for “collaborative sensing” and classification using mobile phones. The authors state that to the best of their knowledge, “Darwin is the first system that applies distributed machine learning techniques and collaborative inference concepts to mobile phones.” The paper contains a number of cool ideas, like “model pooling”, where phones that are close to each other can “borrow” trained classification models from each other, and “collaborative inference”, when a group of phones combine the predictions from their respective model to a potentially more robust overall prediction, which is less sensitive to particularities such as background noise specific to each phone’s location. This way of boosting predictions by using different models to reduce noise is reminiscent of how ensemble models are used in machine learning. The concepts of model pooling and collaborative inference are very useful, because it is typically quite time-consuming to train a classification model on a mobile phone; people don’t like to be bothered to provide labels to training examples.

In short, classification on (clusters of) mobile phones seems to be a really interesting problem!

Completely unrelated but still interesting was a recent Economist article about Alibaba, the Chinese site that matches up producers in China with foreign buyers, eliminating middlemen. I had been vaguely aware of this site and sometimes idly wondered about its business model, and here the Economist suggests that the company is sitting on some really valuable data about how creditworthy small companies are, which companies that know each other, and in general how Chinese middle-class people spend their money. It must be an interesting data set for sure.

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