High quality transcriptome assembly using short reads from RNA-seq data still heavily relies upon reference-based approaches, of which the primary step is to align RNA-seq reads to a single reference genome of haploid sequence. However, it is increasingly apparent that while different genotypes within a species share core genes, they also contain variable numbers of specific genes that are only present a subset of individuals. Using a common reference may thus lead to a loss of genotype-specific information in the assembled transcript dataset and the generation of erroneous, incomplete or misleading transcriptomics analysis results. With the recent development of pan-genome information in many species, it is important that we understand the limitations of single genotype references for transcriptomics analysis. In this study, we quantitively evaluated the advantages of using genotype-specific reference genomes for transcriptome assembly and analysis using cultivated barley as a model. We mapped barley cultivar Barke RNA-seq reads to the Barke genome and to the cultivar Morex genome (common barley genome reference) to construct a genotype specific Reference Transcript Dataset (sRTD) and a common Reference Transcript Datasets (cRTD), respectively. We compared the two RTDs according to their transcript diversity, transcript sequence and structure similarity and the accuracy they provided for transcript quantification and differential expression analysis. Our evaluation shows that the sRTD has a significantly higher diversity of transcripts and alternative splicing events. Despite using a high-quality reference genome for assembly of the cRTD, we miss ca. 40% transcripts present in the sRTD and cRTD only has ca. 70% true assemblies. We found that the sRTD is more accurate for transcript quantification as well as differential expression and differential alternative splicing analysis. However, gene level quantification and comparative expression analysis are less affected by the source RTD, which indicates that analysing transcriptomic data at the gene level may be a reasonable compromise when a high-quality genotype-specific reference is not available.
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