What does Trinity's In Silico normalization do?

This post can be referenced and cited at the following DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.98198.

For a few months, the Trinity list was awash with discussions about how to use digital normalization to lower the memory and compute requirements for mRNASeq assembly. At some point a Trinity developer contacted me and said that they were going to provide their own in silico normalization approach as part of Trinity, because their benchmarks showed that diginorm as implemented in khmer didn't work too well with Trinity. The Trinity approach has since emerged here.

The observation that diginorm performed poorly as a prefilter for Trinity concerned me, obviously, because we have a preprint saying that it works quite well :). I couldn't get enough specifics for me to replicate their bad results with diginorm, and they seemed happy to go their own route, so I left it there, provisionally.

At the time, I took a quick look at their normalization approach and couldn't quite figure out precisely what it would do, but also couldn't take the time to understand it in depth. That was a few months ago, and the issue has been a persistent itch in the back of my mind since then, but I finally got around to banging on it today. Below are the results.

The Trinity in silico normalization algorithm

The master script, util/normalize_by_kmer_coverage.pl, masterminds the conversion of FASTQ to FASTA and sets various parameters. The parameters of interest used below are a k-mer size K of 25 and a default coverage C of 20.

Briefly, util/normalize_by_kmer_coverage.pl converts everything to FASTA and runs Jellyfish, a ridiculously fast k-mer counter, on all the files. Jellyfish reads in all the FASTA sequences and outputs a file normalized_reads/jellyfish.25.kmers.fa containing each 25-mer and its count.

Then, fastaToKmerCoverageStats (source: Inchworm/src/fastaToKmerCoverageStats.cpp)

  • loads in all of the k-mer counts from the k-mer FASTA file, normalized_reads/jellyfish.25.kmers.fa.
  • for each read, computes the median, average, stdev, and percentage stdev, and outputs them to <seqfile>.K25.stats.

Next, util/nbkc_normalize.pl goes through each of the <seqfile>.K25.stats files and, after some error analysis, checks to see if a random number between 0 and 1 (excluding 1) matches is less than the ratio of the desired coverage and the median coverage. If it is, the sequence name is output to a file <seqfile>.C20.pctSD100.accs.

See util/nbkc_normalize.pl, line 26, for the decision point:

if (rand(1) <= $max_cov/$med_cov) {
    print "$core_acc\n";

To see how this if statement works out, consider:

If the desired coverage is 20, and the median coverage is 10, the ratio is greater than 2 and the read is always kept.

If the desired coverage is 20, and the median coverage is 40, the ratio is 0.5 and the read is kept roughly half the time.

Finally, the function make_normalized_reads_file in util/normalize_by_kmer_coverage.pl loads in all the names in each <seqfile>.C20.pctSD100.accs file into an index and then goes through each <seqfile> and extracts the kept sequences into a final <seqfile>>.normalized_K25_C20_pctSD100.fa file.

This last file is then assembled.

A few basic observations

Assuming your file is in FASTA format to begin with, this algorithm reads each sequence 4 times: once for Jellyfish, once for fastaToKmerCoverageStats, once for nbkc_normalize (since each sequence has a stat line), and once again to make the final normalized reads file. Each 25-mer in the data set is also written and read once, and as there are generally more total k-mers than total sequences, this algorithm's runtime scales with a factor of approximately 5 times the input data set size.

In terms of memory usage, Jellyfish and Inchworm (the first two steps) both count all k-mers (although it looks like there is an option to discount k-mers that only show up once -- I think this must only apply to the fastaToKmerCoverageStats step, not the original Jellyfish step). Thus the memory requirements for Trinity's in silico normalization scales with the number of distinct k-mers in the data set -- again, this can be quite large.

What happens when you run it on simulated data?

From the diginorm paper, I have a convenient simulated test data set for exploring normalization approaches. The data set is described in the diginorm paper; basically it's just a bunch of reads simulated from short transcripts across three different orders of magnitude (see make-random-transcriptome and make-biased-reads).

I generated the simulated data, and then ran diginorm (k=25, C=20) and Trinity norm (k=25, C=20).

I started with 1m reads; diginorm kept 91,029, while Trinity norm kept 13,245.

I assayed a few different metrics on these files.

First, I asked how many total k-mers were left in each data set. This is an estimate of the amount of memory needed to assemble the data with a de Bruijn graph assembler:

Unnormalized data: 3,163,778 total k-mers
diginorm normalization: 1,976,319 total k-mers remaining
Trinity normalization: 190,815 total k-mers remaining

Next, I plotted k-mer abundance histograms; a closeup of the comparison is shown in Figure 1.

Fig 1. k-mer abundance plots of raw and normalized data.

The main takeaway here is that both diginorm and Trinity norm are shifting the k-mer abundance plot as they're supposed to, and making it "normal". Diginorm is underestimating the k-mer coverage (hence the green curve is not centered on 20) while Trinity is bang on -- this is due to the retention of more erroneous sequences by diginorm, I think.

Third, I looked at how many "true" k-mers were lost; since this is simulated data, I know exactly what should be there.

Missing 96.0 true k-mers in the sequence reads
Missing 103.0 true k-mers in the diginorm reads
Missing 363.0 true k-mers in the Trinity norm reads

Due to random sequence sampling, errors, and low coverage of some transcripts, we're missing 96 k-mers of 47,600 in the raw reads -- these are completely unrecoverable by assembly, of course!

But what do the filters do?

Diginorm drops an additional 7 k-mers, and Trinity normalization drops 267 k-mers. This isn't bad -- 267 looks a lot larger than 7, but it's still only 0.6% of the total k-mers.

From this little study, we can see that Trinity normalization decreases the total number of k-mers by 94% as opposed to only 38% by diginorm; and Trinity normalization discards about 98% of the reads, as opposed to only 90% by diginorm. In exchange, Trinity discards about 40 times as many true k-mers as diginorm, or 0.6% of the recoverable k-mers (Trinity) vs 0.01% of the recoverable k-mers (diginorm). Not too shabby!

Reproducing it with khmer.

khmer conveniently provides me with all I need to reimplement Trinity's basic normalization algorithm. So I did, implementing the removal of sequences via the median count across the entire data set -- basically a conversion of the diginorm algorithm into a non-streaming algorithm -- with this code:

med, avg, dev = ht.get_median_count(seq)
if random.randint(1, med) > args.coverage:
      # discard sequence
      # else, keep sequence

The results kinda sucked -- I kept about 87k sequences as compared to 91k with diginorm, and 13k with Trinity. Huh?


Turns out the Trinity normalization procedure has another important if statement -- see util/nbkc_normalize.pl, line 15:

if ($pct_dev > $max_pct_stdev) { next; } # discard sequence

Here, the per-read pct_dev is defined as the deviation in k-mer coverage divided by the average k-mer coverage, times 100 (to make it a percent). If the deviation is high, that indicates that the read is likely to contain many errors, since high-coverage reads with low-coverage k-mers shouldn't happen. Trinity sets a cutoff of 100: if the deviation is as big as the average, the read should go away

Sure enough, when I implement that in khmer:

med, avg, dev = ht.get_median_count(seq)
pct = dev / avg * 100

if random.randint(1, med) > args.coverage or pct > 100:
    return None, None

I keep approximately 13k reads -- pretty much what I get with the Trinity normalization script.

You can see the final two scripts here: filter-median.py and filter-median-and-pct.py.

Can I make it more efficient?

The Trinity implementation goes over the data 5x, while my implementation goes over the data twice (the minimum needed by the approach). Both read in all the k-mers in order to count them, which balloons the required memory horrendously. Is there a way to get back to the streaming goodness of diginorm, which looks at each sequence only once?

It turns out there is, at least approximately. The following code does the trick:

med, avg, dev = ht.get_median_count(seq)

pct = 0.
if avg:
    pct = dev / avg * 100

if med < DESIRED_COVERAGE and pct < 100:
    passed_filter = True

Here, 'get_median_count' is counting the k-mers in the sequence only in the context of the k-mers already seen, not all of the k-mers in the data set -- that is, this is an online implementation of the algorithm that only looks at each piece of data once. Only once a sequence passes the criterion are its k-mers deemed worthy of being counted.

Note that we can only do this because shotgun sequencing reads are essentially in random order; because this is true, the above is an approximation of the random choice made in the previous scripts (modulo the choice of pct deviation cutoff, which I haven't thought about). I followed this same logic chain in making the original digital normalization a streaming algorithm :).

This new extra-efficient streaming approach (implemented in normalize-by-median-pct.py) keeps a total of 17,889 reads (as compared to 13,245 from Trinity) and 279,672 k-mers (as compared to 190,815 from the Trinity normalization procedure). The extra reads and k-mers kept seem to be the price we pay for converting the algorithm from 2-pass to a streaming algorithm. In partial repayment we lose only 162 "real" k-mers in our streaming approach, as compared to 267 k-mers in the Trinity multipass approach.

it may be possible to tweak the parameters to get better agreement with Trinity, but I would argue that the improvement is already dramatic enough. Unlike the original algorithm, this one looks at each read once, and consumes far less memory than the original algorithm, because most k-mers are never counted. The positive impact of this on runtime and memory is substantial (see the diginorm paper).


First, I understand the Trinity normalization algorithm well enough to reproduce it in a completely different language and software stack. Yay!

Second, I can convert the Trinity multipass algorithm into a streaming online single-pass algorithm, with substantial decrease in running time, disk access -- the streaming algorithm is entirely in-memory -- and total memory required. Combine this with khmer's general memory efficiency and it's a big win overall. (Spoiler alert: we can count k-mers about 5-10x more memory efficiently than Jellyfish.)

I don't see any easy way that Trinity can incorporate this into their script-based workflow -- they'd have to hook into Jellyfish's library code -- but it would probably be worth it.

Third, I now understand why the Trinity algorithm discards so much more data than digital normalization: it uses a pretty hard-core heuristic guess about what relative k-mer abundances within a read should look like, and discards reads that look bad. We are already doing this with diginorm implicitly by using the median, but this is way more stringent. I'm still not sure how much this added stringency will matter for things like sensitivity to splice junctions. That, however, is something I'll leave for future inquiry... because I'm done for tonight ;).

Over and out!


p.s. You can see some of the ancillary changes I made to the diginorm pipeline for this blog post here; note especially the IPython Notebook calculations. Drop me a note or ask in comments if you want to play with it yourself.

p.p.s. If the Trinity team implements this, I expect them to cite this blog post :). I'll even provide a figshare DOI for them...

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