Graph alignment and variant calling

There's an interesting and intuitive connection between error correction and variant calling - if you can do one well, it lets you do (parts of) the other well. In the previous blog post on some new features in khmer, we introduced our new "graphalign" functionality, that lets us align short sequences to De Bruijn graphs, and we discussed how we use it for error correction. Now, let's try it out for some simple variant calling!

Graphalign can potentially be used for variant calling in a few different ways - by mapping reads to the reference graph and then using a pileup approach, or by error correcting reads against the graph with a tunable threshold for errors and then looking to see where all the reads disagree - but I've become enamored of an approach based on the concept of reference-guided assembly.

The essential idea is to build a graph that contains the information in the reads, and then "assemble" a path through the graph using a reference sequence as a guide. This has the advantage of looking at the reads only once (to build a DBG, which can be done in a single pass), and also potentially being amenable to a variety of heuristics. (Like almost all variant calling, it is limited by the quality of the reference, although we think there are probably some ways around that.)

Basic graph-based variant calling

Implementing this took a little bit of extra effort beyond the basic read aligner, because we want to align past gaps in the graph. The way we implemented this was to break the reference up into a bunch of local alignments, each aligned independently, then stitched together.

Again, we tried to keep the API simple. After creating a ReadAligner object,

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

there's a single function that takes in the graph and the sequence (potentially genome/chr sized) to align:

score, alignment = align_long(graph, aligner, sequence)

What is returned is a score and an alignment object that gives us access to the raw alignment, some basic stats, and "variant calling" functionality - essentially, reporting of where the alignments are not identical. This is pretty simple to implement:

for n, (a, b) in enumerate(zip(graph_alignment, read_alignment)):
    if a != b:
       yield n, a, b

The current implementation of the variant caller does nothing beyond reporting where an aligned sequence differs from the graph; this is kind of like guided assembly. In the future, the plan is to extend it with reference-free assembly.

To see this in action for a simulated data set, look at the file sim.align.out -- we get alignments like this, highlighting mismatches:

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(Note that the full alignment shows there's a bug in the read aligner at the ends of graphs. :)

It works OK for whole-genome bacterial stuff, too. If we take an E. coli data set (the same one we used in the semi-streaming paper) and just run the reads against the known reference genome, we'll get 74 differences between the graph and the reference genome, out of 4639680 positions -- an identity of 99.998% (variants-ecoli.txt). On the one hand, this is not that great (consider that for something the size of the human genome, with this error rate we'd be seeing 50,000 false positives!); on the other hand, as with error correction, the whole analysis stack is surprisingly simple, and we haven't spent any time tuning it yet.

Simulated variants, and targeted variant calling

With simulated variants in the E. coli genome, it does pretty well. Here, rather than changing up the genome and generating synthetic reads, we went with the same real reads as before, and instead changed the reference genome we are aligning to the reads. This was done with the script, which changes an A to a C at position 500,000, removes two bases at position 2m, and adds two bases at position 3m.

When we align the "patched" E. coli genome against the read graph, we indeed recover all three alignments (see variants-patched.txt) in the background of the same false positives we saw in the unaltered genome. So that's kind of nice.

What's even neater is that we can do targeted variant calling directly against the graph -- suppose, for example, that we're interested in just a few regions of the reference. With the normal mapping-based variant calling, you need to map all the reads first before querying for variants by location, because mapping requires the use of the entire reference. Here, you are already looking at all the reads in the graph form, so you can query just the regions you're interested in.

So, for example, here you can align just the patched regions (in ecoli-patched-segments.fa) against the read graph and get the same answer you got when aligning the entire reference (target ecoli-patched-segments.align.out). This works in part because we're stitching together local alignments, so there are some caveats in cases where different overlapping query sequences might lead to different optimal alignments - further research needed.

Speed considerations

Once you've created the graph (which is linear time with respect to the number of reads), things are pretty fast. For the E. coli data set, it takes about 25 seconds to do a full reference-to-graph alignment on my Mac laptop. Much of the code is still written in Python so we hope to get this under 5 seconds.

In the future, we expect to get much faster. Since the alignment is guided and piecewise, it should be capable of aligning through highly repetitive repeats and is also massively parallelizable. We think that the main bottleneck is going to be loading in the reads. We're working on optimizing the loading separately, but we're hoping to get down to about 8 hours for a full ~50x human genome variant calling with this method on a single CPU.

Memory considerations

The memory is dominated by graph size, which in turn is dominated by the errors in short-read Illumina data. We have efficient ways of trimming some of these errors, and/or compressing down the data, even if we don't just correct them; the right approach will depend on details of the data (haploid? diploid? polyploid?) and will have to be studied.

For E. coli, we do the above variant calling in under 400 MB of RAM. We should be able to get that down to under 100 MB of RAM easily enough, but we will have to look into exactly what happens as we compress our graph down.

From the Minia paper, we can place some expectations on the memory usage for diploid human genome assembly. (We don't use cascading Bloom filters, but our approaches are approximately equivalent.) We believe we can get down to under 10 GB of RAM here.

Additional thoughts

As with most of our methods, this approach should work directly for variant calling on RNAseq and metagenomic data with little alteration. We have a variety of graph preparation methods (straight-up graph loading as well as digital normalization and abundance slicing) that can be applied to align to everything while favoring high-coverage reads, or only to high coverage, or to error-trimmed reads, or...

In effect, what we're doing is (rather boring) reference-guided assembly. Wouldn't it be nice if we extended it to longer indels, as in Holtgrewe et al., 2015? Yes, it would. Then we could ask for an assembly to be done between two points... This would enable the kinds of approaches that (e.g.) Rimmer et al., 2014 describe.

One big problem with this approach is that we're only returning positions in the reference where the graph has no agreement - this will cause problems when querying diploid data sets with a single reference, where we really want to know all variants, including heterozygous ones where the reference contains one of the two. We can think of several approaches to resolving this, but haven't implemented them yet.

A related drawback of this approach so far is that we have (so far) presented no way of representing multiple data sets in the same graph; this means that you can't align to many different data sets all at once. You also can't take advantage of things like the contiguity granted by long reads in many useful ways, nor can you do haplotyping with the long reads. Stay tuned...

References and previous work

A number of people have done previous work on graph-based variant calling --

  • Zam Iqbal and Mario Caccamo's Cortex is the first article that introduced me to this area. Since then, Zam's work as well as some of the work that Jared Simpson is doing on FM indices has been a source of inspiration.

    (See especially Zam's very nice comment on our error correction post!)

  • Heng Li's FermiKit does something very similar to what we're proposing to do, although it seems like he effectively does an assembly before calling variants. This has some positives and some negatives that we'll have to explore.

  • Kimura and Koike (2015) do variant calling on a Burrows- Wheeler transform of short-read data, which is very similar to what we're doing.

  • Using k-mers to find variation is nothing new. Two articles that caught my eye -- BreaKmer (Abo et al, 2015) and kSNP3 (Gardner et al., 2015) both do this to great effect.

  • the GA4GH is working on graph-based variant calling, primarily for human. So far it seems like they are planning to rely on well curated genomes and variants; I'm going to be working with (much) poorer quality genomes, which may account for some differences in how we're thinking about things.

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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