Read-to-graph alignment and error correction

One of the newer features in khmer that we're pretty excited about is the read-to-graph aligner, which gives us a way to align sequences to a De Bruijn graph; our nickname for it is "graphalign."

Briefly, graphalign uses a pair-HMM to align a sequence to a k-mer graph (aka De Bruijn graph) allowing both mismatches and indels, and taking into account coverage using a binary model (trusted and untrusted k-mers). The core code was written by Jordan Fish when he was a graduate student in the lab, based on ideas stemming from Jason Pell's thesis work on error correction. It was then refactored by Michael Crusoe.

Graphalign actually lets us do lots of things, including align both short and long sequences to DBG graphs, error correct, and call variants. We've got a simple Python API built into khmer, and we're working to extend it.

The core graphalign API is based around the concept of a ReadAligner object:

aligner = khmer.ReadAligner(graph, trusted_cov, bits_theta)

where 'graph' is a De Bruijn graph (implemented as a counting table in khmer), 'trusted_cov' defines what the trusted k-mer coverage is, and 'bits_theta' adjusts a scoring parameter used to extend alignments.

The 'aligner' object can be used to align short sequences to the graph:

score, graph_alignment, read_alignment, truncated = \

Here, 'graph_alignment' and 'read_alignment' are strings; if 'truncated' is false, then they are of the same length, and constitute a full gapped alignment of the DNA sequence in 'read' to the graph.

The approach used by 'align' is to seed an alignment at the first trusted k-mer, and then extend the alignment along the graph in both directions. Thus, it's effectively a local aligner.

Error correction

Our initial motivation for graphalign was to use it to do error correction, with specific application to short-read sequences. There was (and to some extent still is) a dearth of error correction approaches that can be used for metagenome and transcriptome data sets, and since that kind of data is what our lab works on, we needed an error correction approach for those data. We also wanted something a bit more programmable than the existing error correctors, which were primarily command-line tools; we've found a lot of value in building libraries, and wanted to use that approach here, too.

The basic idea is this: we build a graph from our short-read data, and then go back through and align each short read to the graph. A successful alignment is then the corrected read. The basic code looks like this:

graph = build_graph(dataset)

aligner = khmer.ReadAligner(graph, trusted_cov, bits_theta)

for read in dataset:
    score, graph_align, read_align, is_truncated = aligner.align(read)
    corrected_read = graph_align

In conjunction with our work on semi-streaming algorithms, we can directly convert this into a semi-streaming algorithm that works on genomes, metagenomes, and transcriptomes. This is implemented in the correct-reads script.

Some results

If we try this out on a simulated data set (random genome, randomly chosen reads - see target compare-sim.txt in Makefile), it takes the simulated data from an error rate of around 1% to about 0.1%; see compare-sim.txt.

Applying this to a ~7m read subset of mRNAseq that we tackled in the semi-streaming paper (the data itself is from the Trinity paper, Grabherr et al, 2011), we take the data from an error rate of about 1.59% to 0.98% (see target rseq-compare.txt in Makefile). There are several reasons why this misses so many errors - first, error correction depends on high coverage, and much of this RNAseq data set is low coverage; second, this data set has a lot of errors; and third, RNAseq may have a broader k-mer abundance distribution than genomic sequencing.

One important side note: we use exactly the same script for error correcting RNAseq data as we do for genomic data.

How good is the error correction?

tl; dr? It's pretty good but still worse than current methods. When we compare to Quake results on an E. coli data set (target compare-ecoli.txt in the Makefile), we see:

Data set Error rate
Uncorrected 1.587%
Quake 0.009%
khmer 0.013%

This isn't too bad - two orders of magnitude decrease in error rate! - but we'd like to at least be able to beat Quake :).

(Note that here we do a fair comparison by looking only at errors on sequences that Quake doesn't discard; to get comparable results on your data with khmer, you'd also have to trim your reads. We are also making use of the approach developed in the streaming paper where we digitally normalize the graph in advance, in order to decrease the number of errors and the size of the graph.)

Concluding thoughts

What attracts us to this approach is that it's really simple. The basic error correction is a few lines, although it's surrounded by a bunch of machinery for doing semi-streaming analysis and keeping pairing intact. (The two-pass/offline script for error correction is much cleaner, because it omits all of this machinery.)

It's also nice that this applies to all shotgun sequencing, not just genomic; that's a trivial extension of our semi-streaming paper.

We also suspect that this approach is quite tunable, although we are just beginning to investigate the proper way to build parameters for the pair-HMM, and we haven't nailed down the right coverage/cutoff parameters for error correction either. More work to be done!

In any case, there's also more than error correction to be done with the graphalign approach -- stay tuned!

References and previous work

This is by no means novel - we're building on a lot of ideas from a lot of people. Our interest is in bridging from theory to practice, and providing a decent tunable implementation in an open-source package, so that we can explore these ideas more widely.

Here is short summary of previous work, surely incomplete --

  • Much of this was proximally inspired by Jordan's work on Xander, software to do HMM-guided gene assembly from metagenomic data. (An accompanying paper has been accepted for publication; will blog about that when it hits.)
  • More generally, my MSU colleague Yanni Sun has had several PhD students that have worked on HMMs and graph alignment, and she and her students have been great sources of ideas! (She co-advised Jordan.)
  • BlastGraph, like Xander, built on the idea of graph alignment. It is the earliest reference I know of to graph alignment, but I haven't looked very hard.
  • Yuzhen Ye and Haixu Tang at Indiana have developed very similar functionality that I became aware of when reviewing their nice paper on graph alignment for metatranscriptomics.
  • Jared Simpson has been doing nice work on aligning Nanopore reads to a reference sequence. My guess is that the multiple sequence alignment approach described in Jonathan Dursi's blog post is going to prove relevant to us.
  • The error corrector Coral (Salmela and Schroder, 2011) bears a strong philosophical resemblance to graphalign in its approach to error correction, if you think of a De Bruijn graph as a kind of multiple-sequence alignment.

If you know of more, please add references below, in the comments - much appreciated!

Appendix: Running this code

The computational results in this blog post are Rather Reproducible (TM). Please see for instructions on replicating the results on a virtual machine or using a Docker container.

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