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CellMixS: quantifying and visualizing batch effects in single cell RNA-seq data

By Almut Luetge, Joanna Zyprych-Walczak, Urszula Brykczynska Kunzmann, Helena L Crowell, Daniela Calini, Dheeraj Malhotra, Charlotte Soneson, Mark D Robinson

Posted 11 Dec 2020
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.12.11.420885

A key challenge in single cell RNA-sequencing (scRNA-seq) data analysis are dataset- and batch-specific differences that can obscure the biological signal of interest. While there are various tools and methods to perform data integration and correct for batch effects, their performance can vary between datasets and according to the nature of the bias. Therefore, it is important to understand how batch effects manifest in order to adjust for them in a reliable way. Here, we systematically explore batch effects in a variety of scRNA-seq datasets according to magnitude, cell type specificity and complexity. We developed a cell-specific mixing score (cms) that quantifies how well cells from multiple batches are mixed. By considering distance distributions (in a lower dimensional space), the score is able to detect local batch bias and differentiate between unbalanced batches (i.e., when one cell type is more abundant in a batch) and systematic differences between cells of the same cell type. We implemented cms and related metrics to detect batch effects or measure structure preservation in the CellMixS R/Bioconductor package. We systematically compare different metrics that have been proposed to quantify batch effects or bias in scRNA-seq data using real datasets with known batch effects and synthetic data that mimic various real data scenarios. While these metrics target the same question and are used interchangeably, we find differences in inter- and intra-dataset scalability, sensitivity and in a metric's ability to handle batch effects with differentially abundant cell types. We find that cell-specific metrics outperform cell type-specific and global metrics and recommend them for both method benchmarks and batch exploration.

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