GEOlimma: differential expression analysis and feature selection using pre-existing microarray data


Background: Differential expression and feature selection analyses are essential steps for the development of accurate diagnostic/prognostic classifiers of complicated human diseases using transcriptomics data. These steps are particularly challenging due to the curse of dimensionality and the presence of technical and biological noise. A promising strategy for overcoming these challenges is the incorporation of pre-existing transcriptomics data in the identification of differentially expressed (DE) genes. This approach has the potential to improve the quality of selected genes, increase classification performance, and enhance biological interpretability. While a number of methods have been developed that use pre-existing data for differential expression analysis, existing methods do not leverage the identities of experimental conditions to create a robust metric for identifying DE genes. Results: In this study, we propose a novel differential expression and feature selection method—GEOlimma—which combines pre-existing microarray data from the Gene Expression Omnibus (GEO) with the widely-applied Limma method for differential expression analysis. We first quantify differential gene expression across 2481 pairwise comparisons from 602 curated GEO Datasets, and we convert differential expression frequencies to DE prior probabilities. Genes with high DE prior probabilities show enrichment in cell growth and death, signal transduction, and cancer-related biological pathways, while genes with low prior probabilities were enriched in sensory system pathways. We then applied GEOlimma to four differential expression comparisons within two human disease datasets and performed differential expression, feature selection, and supervised classification analyses. Our results suggest that use of GEOlimma provides greater experimental power to detect DE genes compared to Limma, due to its increased effective sample size. Furthermore, in a supervised classification analysis using GEOlimma as a feature selection method, we observed similar or better classification performance than Limma given small, noisy subsets of an asthma dataset. Conclusions: Our results demonstrate that GEOlimma is a more effective method for differential gene expression and feature selection analyses compared to the standard Limma method. Due to its focus on gene-level differential expression, GEOlimma also has the potential to be applied to other high-throughput biological datasets.

Publication Title

BMC Bioinformatics