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Basal Contamination of Sequencing: Lessons from the GTEx dataset

By Tim O. Nieuwenhuis, Stephanie Yang, Rohan X Verma, Vamsee Pillalamarri, Dan E. Arking, Avi Z. Rosenberg, Matthew N. McCall, Marc K. Halushka

Posted 08 Apr 2019
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/602367

One of the challenges of next generation sequencing (NGS) is read contamination. We used the Genotype-Tissue Expression (GTEx) project, a large, diverse, and robustly generated dataset, to understand the factors that contribute to contamination. We obtained GTEx datasets and technical metadata and validating RNA-Seq from other studies. Of 48 analyzed tissues in GTEx, 26 had variant co-expression clusters of four known highly expressed and pancreas-enriched genes ( PRSS1 , PNLIP , CLPS , and/or CELA3A ). Fourteen additional highly expressed genes from other tissues also indicated contamination. Sample contamination by non-native genes was associated with a sample being sequenced on the same day as a tissue that natively expressed those genes. This was highly significant for pancreas and esophagus genes (linear model, p=9.5e-237 and p=5e-260 respectively). Nine SNPs in four genes shown to contaminate non-native tissues demonstrated allelic differences between DNA-based genotypes and contaminated sample RNA-based genotypes, validating the contamination. Low-level contamination affected 4,497 (39.6%) samples (defined as 10 PRSS1 TPM). It also led ≥ to eQTL assignments in inappropriate tissues among these 18 genes. We note this type of contamination occurs widely, impacting bulk and single cell data set analysis. In conclusion, highly expressed, tissue-enriched genes basally contaminate GTEx and other datasets impacting analyses. Awareness of this process is necessary to avoid assigning inaccurate importance to low-level gene expression in inappropriate tissues and cells.

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