Gustafsson J, Held F, Robinson JL, Björnson E, Jörnsten R, Nielsen J
PLoS ONE 15 (9) e0239495 [2020-09-21; online 2020-09-21]
Cell-type specific gene expression profiles are needed for many computational methods operating on bulk RNA-Seq samples, such as deconvolution of cell-type fractions and digital cytometry. However, the gene expression profile of a cell type can vary substantially due to both technical factors and biological differences in cell state and surroundings, reducing the efficacy of such methods. Here, we investigated which factors contribute most to this variation. We evaluated different normalization methods, quantified the variance explained by different factors, evaluated the effect on deconvolution of cell type fractions, and examined the differences between UMI-based single-cell RNA-Seq and bulk RNA-Seq. We investigated a collection of publicly available bulk and single-cell RNA-Seq datasets containing B and T cells, and found that the technical variation across laboratories is substantial, even for genes specifically selected for deconvolution, and this variation has a confounding effect on deconvolution. Tissue of origin is also a substantial factor, highlighting the challenge of using cell type profiles derived from blood with mixtures from other tissues. We also show that much of the differences between UMI-based single-cell and bulk RNA-Seq methods can be explained by the number of read duplicates per mRNA molecule in the single-cell sample. Our work shows the importance of either matching or correcting for technical factors when creating cell-type specific gene expression profiles that are to be used together with bulk samples.
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