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A descriptive marker gene approach to single-cell pseudotime inference

By Kieran R Campbell, Christopher Yau

Posted 23 Jun 2016
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/060442

Pseudotime estimation from single-cell gene expression allows the recovery of temporal information from otherwise static profiles of individual cells. This pseudotemporal information can be used to characterise transient events in temporally evolving biological systems. Conventional algorithms typically emphasise an unsupervised transcriptome-wide approach and use retrospective analysis to evaluate the behaviour of individual genes. Here we introduce an orthogonal approach termed "Ouija" that learns pseudotimes from a small set of marker genes that might ordinarily be used to retrospectively confirm the accuracy of unsupervised pseudotime algorithms. Crucially, we model these genes in terms of switch-like or transient behaviour along the trajectory, allowing us to understand why the pseudotimes have been inferred and learn informative parameters about the behaviour of each gene. Since each gene is associated with a switch or peak time the genes are effectively ordered along with the cells, allowing each part of the trajectory to be understood in terms of the behaviour of certain genes. In the following we introduce our model and demonstrate that in many instances a small panel of marker genes can recover pseudotimes that are consistent with those obtained using the entire transcriptome. Furthermore, we show that our method can detect differences in the regulation timings between two genes and identify "metastable" states - discrete cell types along the continuous trajectories - that recapitulate known cell types. Ouija therefore provides a powerful complimentary approach to existing whole transcriptome based pseudotime estimation methods. An open source implementation is available at http://www.github.com/kieranrcampbell/ouija as an R package and at http://www.github.com/kieranrcampbell/ouijaflow as a Python/TensorFlow package.

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