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Bioinformatics. 2010 June 15; 26(12): i149–i157.
Published online 2010 June 1. doi:  10.1093/bioinformatics/btq211
PMCID: PMC2881395

Inferring combinatorial association logic networks in multimodal genome-wide screens


Motivation: We propose an efficient method to infer combinatorial association logic networks from multiple genome-wide measurements from the same sample. We demonstrate our method on a genetical genomics dataset, in which we search for Boolean combinations of multiple genetic loci that associate with transcript levels.

Results: Our method provably finds the global solution and is very efficient with runtimes of up to four orders of magnitude faster than the exhaustive search. This enables permutation procedures for determining accurate false positive rates and allows selection of the most parsimonious model. When applied to transcript levels measured in myeloid cells from 24 genotyped recombinant inbred mouse strains, we discovered that nine gene clusters are putatively modulated by a logical combination of trait loci rather than a single locus. A literature survey supports and further elucidates one of these findings. Due to our approach, optimal solutions for multi-locus logic models and accurate estimates of the associated false discovery rates become feasible. Our algorithm, therefore, offers a valuable alternative to approaches employing complex, albeit suboptimal optimization strategies to identify complex models.

Availability: The MATLAB code of the prototype implementation is available on: or

Contact: ln.tfledut@srednier.t.j.m; ln.ikn@slessew.l


To explain complex biological phenomena it is of vital importance to measure—in the same sample—all relevant (complementary) biological variables, and to measure these at a genome-wide scale. For this reason, many multimodal screens have been performed that have complemented transcriptional profiling with, among others, copy number variation measurements, transcription factor binding assays, methylation status profiling or genotype calls (Bystrykh, 2005; Pollack et al., 2002; Shames et al., 2006; Visel et al., 2009).

A common aim in analyzing these multimodal datasets is to find associations between the biological variables measured to infer their regulatory role. Consider, for instance, a study in which expression profiles and genome-wide genotype data were obtained in hematopoietic cells from a panel of fully homozygous recombinant inbred mouse strains (Fig. 1A). This ‘genetical genomics’ approach enables the determination of expression quantitative trait loci (eQTLs) characterized by strong associations between the genotype and the observed expression levels (Jansen and Nap, 2001; Schadt et al., 2003). In the absence of a strong direct association between the genotype and gene expression, real multi-locus interactions may still be present, due to epistatic interaction (Frankel and Schork, 1996; Michaelson et al., 2009). Such interactions may not be detectable as (marginal) direct associations between the genotype and gene expression (Fig. 1B).

Fig. 1.
Schematic overview of data and association inference. (A) A panel of BXD mice that is densely genotyped and expression profiled. The genotype data can be considered as binary vectors by choosing a binary encoding of the alleles (in the figure D = true ...

To alleviate this, approaches which evaluate the joint association of multiple loci and a phenotype of interest are required. Several approaches have been proposed to attack this problem. These approaches differ mostly regarding the way the associations are modeled and the strategy employed to solve the combinatorial optimization problem. Some approaches (Manichaikul et al., 2009; Wongseree et al., 2009) follow what could be loosely termed a two-stage approach, where all two-locus models are first evaluated, which, in stage two, are used in a greedy search to yield multi-locus models. Approaches employing more advanced strategies to traverse the space of possible models are represented by a genetic programming approach (Nunkesser et al., 2007) and Markov Chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) approaches associated with Bayesian analyses (Mukherjee et al., 2009; Zhang and Liu, 2007). Since two-stage approaches have been demonstrated to be suboptimal (Evans et al., 2006) and advanced search strategies such as MCMC are very sensitive to their implementation and parameter settings, and are not guaranteed to be optimal, an approach that finds a provably global solution to a selected model within reasonable time is highly desirable. Of particular interest is the method of Ljungberg et al. (2004) which is used for the pair-scan analysis that is available on the GeneNetwork on Ljungberg et al. (2004) stress the importance of performing a global search rather than relying on greedy searches by (pre)selecting markers based on their marginal effects. To deal with the computational complexity associated with such an optimization problem, the authors present a method to find global optima of a linear regression problem for up to three predictors that is fast enough to be employed in permutation procedures.

In contrast to the class of additive models employed by Ljungberg et al. (2004) (and many other approaches), we follow others (Kooperberg and Ruczinski, 2004; Mukherjee et al., 2009; Nunkesser et al., 2007) and employ Boolean combinatorial logic to explicitly incorporate interactions in the eQTL inference. To this end, we infer combinatorial association logic (CAL) networks that combine the observed genotypes through and (∧), or (ν) and xor ([plus sign in circle]) functions by searching for associations between the result of the Boolean operation and the gene expression. The Boolean and function can be used if altered expression is consistently observed in combination with a particular combination of two alleles (which do not necessarily have to be equal), but remains unchanged in all other genotype configurations. An example of a situation in which this may be observed is the case of two parallel pathways that only promote transcription of their downstream target when the genes in these pathways have specific alleles. Conversely, we may also consistently observe differential transcription in the strains for which either one of two loci is of a certain genotype. This may, for instance, be observed in case of a cascaded signaling pathway: a silencing mutation in one of the alleles can repress the entire pathway, regardless of which gene in the cascade contained this mutation. Boolean or (ν) and xor ([plus sign in circle]) are capable of capturing this behavior (Fig. 1B).

Like the search for optimal predictors in the additive model, inferring optimal predictors of a Boolean function is a challenging computational problem, especially considering that more complex combinations of these functions are also possible. Moreover, we noted that the objective function that needs to be optimized is highly discontinuous and nonlinear so that standard optimization techniques, such as genetic algorithms, simulated annealing and MCMC do not provide an optimal solution. Nevertheless, an efficient and—most importantly—global solution is highly desirable, since this allows permutation procedures with which significance estimates of the discovered associations can be realized (Ljungberg et al., 2004).

In the following, we will mathematically prove that, under reasonable conditions, CAL network inference provides an efficient way to obtain globally optimal multi-locus models that associate multiple genomic loci with the expression of target genes. We illustrate our approach on the genetical genomics dataset from Gerrits et al. 2009, and using these data show that 100% accuracy is achieved at runtimes that are a fraction of those required for exhaustive search. Furthermore, we observe that using this approach complex associations are revealed that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. As such, our approach offers a useful alternative to the commonly used additive models and suboptimal search strategies.


2.1 CAL network search

The construction of a CAL network that predicts the expression profile from a set of binary predictors can be formulated as an optimization problem. Interesting logic networks are those for which maximal association between the network output and the gene expression is obtained. Let g be the (T × 1) vector, with T the number of samples, containing the expression values of a gene and L the (T × L) matrix of binary predictors, e.g. the genotypes, where L is the number of predictors. A CAL network L is defined in terms of S(L; n):BLBN, a selection function that selects N columns from L and B(I):BNB, a Boolean logic function that specifies the network topology. In the latter, (T × N) matrix I is a concatenation of the columns selected by S, i.e. I = (in(1),…, in(N)), where n is a (N × 1) vector containing the indices of the selected columns. Consequently, CAL network L maps the genotype matrix L to a (T × 1) output vector y as follows:

equation image

The association between g and y is quantified with an association measure f(g, y)

equation image

For notational convenience, we used x0 = {g(τ):y(τ) = 0, ∀τ [set membership] (1,…, T)} and x1 = {g(τ):y(τ) = 1, ∀τ [set membership] (1,…, T)}, i.e. vector g is split into x0 and x1 according to the Boolean values in y. Furthermore, An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i1.jpg (An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i2.jpg), s02 (s12) and n0 (n1) are defined as the sample mean, the sample variance and the number of elements in x0 (x1), respectively. Note that Equation (2) is equal to the absolute value of the t-statistic, except when n0 or n1 becomes too small, which ensures high f-values are only obtained in Case x0 and x1 have at least η elements.

The inference of CAL networks is a computationally challenging problem. Primarily, because the feature selection problem, i.e. finding the optimal vector n, critically depends on the number of features that are considered. In the case of genetic markers, this easily runs in the several hundreds to thousands. Moreover, the optimal subset of markers is heavily dependent on how these markers are combined, i.e. dependent on the optimal Boolean function B. All together, one frequently has to rely on greedy search strategies that easily get stuck in local optima or near exhaustive searches that are computationally too expensive, especially when employed in permutation procedures required to assess statistical significance.

Our solution to this problem hinges upon two observations. First, in most practical datasets the sample size is relatively small, especially when compared to the number of features. This means that we can limit ourselves to considering only small CAL networks with few inputs, since larger networks are prone to overfitting, which makes them less informative. For this reason, and because most networks have many equivalent topologies that do not need to be evaluated due to symmetry, the set containing all unique and meaningful network topologies {Bj:j = 1, 2,···} is relatively small (in the order of 10–100, depending on the desired topology). Consequently, the set of optimal input vectors {nj*:j = 1, 2,···}, associated with each Bj, can be found by fixing Bj and maximizing for each Bj separately

equation image

Second, we observe that Equation (3) still represents a complex optimization problem that can be significantly simplified by employing an approximation to the association measure, denoted by An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i3.jpg. In the following, we show that maximizing An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i4.jpg is equivalent to maximizing f, but the maximization of the former can be very efficiently realized by using a branch and bound search. Before defining An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i5.jpg, we define the Boolean vector yopt as the solution for which f reaches a global maximum independent of the network topology, i.e. yopt = argmaxyf(g, y). Note that yopt can be easily determined by sorting the gene expression vector g and evaluating all positions for a threshold t that splits g into x0 and x1 (Fig. 2A). For An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i6.jpg, we use the weighted Hamming similarity between yopt and the network output y

equation image

where w(τ)>0 ∀τ denotes the weight for sample τ, and I(·) the indicator function, evaluating to ‘1’ if the τ-th element of vectors yopt and y are equal.

Fig. 2.
Association versus approximated association. (A) Example gene expression vector (circles) split in x0 and x1 according to yopt. The magenta line denotes the association measure f, defined in Equation (2), as a function of a threshold t that splits the ...

For an example gene expression vector, Figure 2B shows 500 random samples of An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i10.jpg pairs, in case all weights are equal to one. Although the trend of this distribution is monotonically increasing, the spread around the trend is substantial. This is undesirable because a maximum in An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i11.jpg is only guaranteed to correspond to a maximum in f in case there is a direct one-to-one relation between them. Clearly, this is not the case in Figure 2B, since each value of An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i12.jpg corresponds to many values of f. However, by optimizing the weights such that the difference between An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i13.jpg and f is minimal, a near one-to-one relation can be obtained, as exemplified by Figure 2C. With the proper adjustments, detailed below, it is thus ensured that maximizing An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i14.jpg is equivalent to maximizing f. The major advantage of maximizing An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i15.jpg instead of f is that in the former each sample has an independent contribution to the association measure. This can be readily exploited using a branch and bound search, so that it is possible to avoid the expensive evaluation of the association measure.

2.2 Optimizing Equation (3)

Here, we show that optimizing Equation (3) can be achieved by first determining An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i16.jpg, where An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i17.jpg was defined in Equation (4). After this the search for f* = maxnf is readily solved by searching in the neighborhood of An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i18.jpg.

For a single sample τ, let V(τ) be the set of input combinations such that y(τ)=yopt(τ) ∀n[set membership]V(τ), where y=L(L; B, n).1 Figure 3A–C shows how V(τ) can be inferred from L and the truth table of B. For a set of samples C, the input combinations n[set membership]V(C) for which all τ[set membership]C reach the optimal output yopt are found by taking the intersection of all the individual sets of input combinations, i.e. An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i19.jpg. Note that, under the assumption that each sample has at least one non-zero locus, V(τ)[empty] ∀τ. In other words, for individual samples there always exists a combination of inputs for which the network can reach the desired optimal output yopt. However, for an arbitrary combination of samples this is clearly not the case. If we observe that V(C)=[empty], this means that for the collection of samples in C there does not exist a valid combination of inputs. Moreover, if V(C)=[empty], all supersets of C will also result in the empty set. Finally we note that, by choosing a convenient binary encoding, V(τ) and V(C) can be computed very efficiently by means of bitwise xnor and and operations, respectively (see Fig. 3D and the Supplementary Fig. S1 for details).

Fig. 3.
Computation of solution sets for each sample. (A) Example data from Figure 1A. (B) The topology and the truth table of the Boolean function B under investigation. (C) Explanation by example of the calculation of V(τ), the set of all possible ...

With these definitions in mind, we propose the following lemma:

Lemma 1. —

equation image

Proof. —

Let C* = argmaxC∀τ[set membership]C w(τ), i.e. C* is the set of solutions for which An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i27.jpg is obtained. Since it is required that V(C*)[empty], there must be at least one solution n such that yopt(τ)=y(τ) ∀τ [set membership] C*. Since for C* the optimum in An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i28.jpg is obtained, it must also hold that yopt(τ)≠y(τ) ∀τ [negated set membership] C*. This means that Equation (4) can be rewritten as follows: ∑∀τw(τ)I(yopt(τ)=y(τ))=∑∀τ[set membership]Cw(τ), proving the statement in this lemma. [filled square]

As argued by Lemma 1, Equation 4 is thus maximized by having as many samples in C as possible, while taking into account their respective weights w(τ).

Before we will show that Equation (5) fits a branch and bound framework, we first make the observation that for the relation between An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i29.jpg and f the following holds:

equation image

where y1 and y2 are two Boolean vectors. Note that, for ζ=0, Equation (6) reduces to the requirement for strict monotonicity, and that for larger ζ>0 this requirement is increasingly relaxed. Even though this seems trivial, the value of this relation becomes clear by considering that if there exists a strong positive correlation between An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i30.jpg and f, there may in fact exist a small ζ for which Equation (6) is true.

Based on Lemma 1 and Equation (6), we observe that solutions that are suboptimal in terms of An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i31.jpg may still be optimal in terms of f, since ζ can be non-zero. In the following, let {yi:i=1, 2,···} and {Ci:i=1, 2,···} be all the network outputs and the sample sets for the solutions for which holds that An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i32.jpg, respectively. Finally, let ζ be chosen such that Equation (6) holds. Our main theorem can now be formulated as follows:

Theorem 2. —

equation image

Proof. —

First, assume that Equation (6) holds for ζ=0, and thus An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i33.jpg. Furthermore, from Equation (6) it follows that in this case there exists a direct one-to-one relation between An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i34.jpg and f. Consequently, a maximum in An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i35.jpg is guaranteed to correspond to a maximum in f and V(Ci) must contain n*. This is true because from Lemma 1 it follows that V(Ci)[empty]. For non-zero values of ζ, the one-to-one relation does not hold. However, from Equation (6), it follows that all values of f for which the corresponding An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i36.jpg lies outside the interval An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i37.jpg are strictly smaller than the value of f corresponding to An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i38.jpg. Thus, it must be the case that the maximum of f is constrained to solutions for which An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i39.jpg lies in the interval An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i40.jpg. Therefore, the union of the sets of solutions that lie in this interval will contain n*. [filled square]

From Theorem 2 it naturally follows that:

Corollary 3. —

equation image

where An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i41.jpg. Notably, if there exists a small ζ for which Equation (6) holds, the number of solutions in V(Q) is limited, and hence n* is easily determined by an exhaustive search over all possible solutions in V(Q). In the following, we show that in practice the set V(Q) is small by choosing w such that ζ is small.

2.2.1 Estimating the weights

Ideally, vector w is chosen such that ζ is minimal. For practical purposes, it is sufficient to choose w so that ζ is small, which can be realized by minimizing the difference between An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i42.jpg and f. For this purpose, we sample the An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i43.jpg relation by generating N random instances yn by introducing up to m random bit-flips in yopt (shown in Fig. 2B and C). The N corresponding association measures fn and Hamming similarities are collected in vector f = [f(g, y1), f(g, y2),···]T and matrix An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i44.jpg, respectively. In the latter, ↔ denotes the xnor operation, which evaluates to ‘1’ in case its arguments are equal. Notably, m (the number of bit-flips) should be chosen such that the region of interest of the distribution of f is sampled. Since we are interested only in network outputs that associate well with the gene expression, we can choose m rather small to focus only on the right tail for which a good fit between An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i45.jpg and f is obtained. We found that smaller residuals were obtained by converting log-transformed f-values to z-scores, i.e. An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i46.jpg Furthermore, to deal with the intercept, the matrix F is mean centered, denoted by An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i47.jpg. Using the vector An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i48.jpg and matrix An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i49.jpg we can find the weights w by constraint linear least squares minimization

equation image

where wε > 0 is a small scalar that ensures each sample receives a non-zero weight. Figure 2 illustrates a typical example showing that the trend of the relation is monotonically increasing, and the spread around the trend is marginal, indicating that Equation (6) indeed holds for a small ζ.

2.2.2 Estimating ζ

The parameter ζ can be estimated by randomly resampling the An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i50.jpg relation using the obtained weights and measuring the spread around the trend in the data in the An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i51.jpg direction (Fig. 2C illustrates this schematically). To this end, lowess smoothing was performed to obtain the the trend in the data (Cleveland, 1979). Subsequently, the spread around this trend was obtained by applying a sliding window in the An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i52.jpg direction and defining ζ as the maximum spread across all window positions.

2.2.3 Branch and bound search tree

Equation (5) naturally fits a branch and bound framework with a backtracking search tree, in which each node corresponds to a particular set of samples C (shown in Supplementary Fig. S2). Although this tree exhaustively represents all possible sample sets C, the search is very efficient since most nodes can be pruned from the search tree. First of all, if V(C) becomes equal to the empty set, all child nodes of node C can be discarded because these will also result in the empty set. Second, as a result of the search tree topology, for each node C we can define an upper bound An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i53.jpg and lower bound An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i54.jpg. The upper bound An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i55.jpg is defined as the value of An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i56.jpg that would be obtained assuming all its subnodes do not result in the empty set (best case scenario)

equation image

where Csub denotes the collection of all samples in the subnodes of C. The lower bound An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i57.jpg is defined as the value of An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i58.jpg that would be obtained assuming all subnodes will result in the empty set (worst-case scenario)

equation image

A vast reduction of the search space is realized by considering the following branch and bound principle: any node Cα can be pruned if there exists a node Cβ, for which the following is true:

equation image

Thus, if we encountered a branch whose worst-case error is better than the best-case error of another branch, we can safely discard the latter.

After the complete search tree is traversed, the set V(Q) is determined by the union of all the nodes that resulted in a non-empty V(C). In Equation (12), the parameter ζ is included to ensure that set V(Q) includes n* (Theorem 12). An optimal leaf ordering is obtained when the samples are sorted based on their weight w(τ). This ensures that An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i59.jpg decreases as quickly as possible, in effect pruning the tree early in the search. Also, note that most V(C) will contain many duplicates when symmetries in the topology of B are considered. By filtering these from V(C) before evaluating the succeeding node results in an additional search speedup.

2.2.4 Tolerance level

A final, yet influential, search-space reduction is achieved by only considering solutions for which a certain minimum level of association is achieved. This is realized by enforcing that An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i60.jpg can never be below a user defined tolerance level. In other words, for this bounded An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i61.jpg, we can write: An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i62.jpg. As a result, branches for which An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is btq211i63.jpg can be pruned even before the search is started. The search procedure is explained by example in Supplementary Figure S2.

2.2.5 Estimating the false discovery rate

Because our primary interest lies with the interpretation of the selected genotype markers and combinatorial logic, it is of critical importance to assess frequency of false positives among the networks called significant. Due to the efficiency of the proposed method, it is possible to employ a permutation procedure to obtain a null-distribution for each Bj. From this distribution, it is possible to estimate the false discovery rate (FDR) and the associated q-values by using the method proposed in Storey and Tibshirani (2003). Not surprisingly, in many cases, multiple network topologies yield significant associations with the same gene. The q-values, available for each of the solutions, provide a convenient way of performing selection of the most parsimonious model by accepting only the topology for which the q-value is minimal.


3.1 Genetical genomics dataset

The genetical genomics dataset used to demonstrate our method contains genome-wide RNA transcript measurements performed on four related hematopoietic cell populations (Gerrits et al., 2009). These were isolated from the bone marrow of ~25 BXD recombinant inbred mouse strains that were derived by crossing C57BL/6J (B6) and DBA/2J (D2) (Peirce et al., 2004). A typical analysis of these data includes determining eQTLs, i.e. regions in the genome for which the genotype across strains associates well with RNA transcript levels.

We inferred associations only for the myeloid cell population, as for this cell type data for the largest number (T = 24) of unique BXD strains were available. The expression data were preprocessed as described in the Supplementary Methods. Because the CAL networks inferred for highly correlated genes are equivalent, rather than starting the optimization for each gene separately, we constructed gene clusters and searched for CAL networks for the centroids of each gene cluster. To ensure only tightly correlated probes were clustered, we employed a stringent cutoff (correlation distance cutoff 0.2). This resulted in 6139 clusters that were used to determine eQTLs.

Genotype information for the strains was retrieved from The GeneNetwork ( Genotype markers that were highly similar across strains and on the same chromosome were also grouped into clusters to prevent the algorithm from finding many combinations of genotype markers that are equivalent (such as the markers in linkage disequilibrium). This resulted in 453 marker clusters (L = 453). The cluster centroids were defined as the majority vote of the individual markers in the cluster and were used as putative inputs to the network (see also the Supplementary Methods and Supplementary Figs. S3 and S4).

For setting the tolerance level ftol no straightforward method exists. Preferably, the tolerance level is set close to the final significance threshold to minimize the effort spent on finding optima for gene clusters that can never be significant. We settled for a tolerance level equal to the 75th percentile of the fopt distribution (ftol = 7.6), obtained by computing the f-values associated with each yopt. Gene clusters for which the maximum f-score is below this tolerance level (i.e. in case fopt<ftol) were not included in the CAL network search, to result in a set of 1525 high-potential gene clusters.

3.2 Algorithm performance

From the methods section it follows that, under the condition that an appropriate value for ζ is found, our algorithm produces an optimal solution. We empirically validate this claim by comparing solutions of the proposed algorithm with the global optimum obtained with an exhaustive search. To ensure realistic conditions, we do this using the real data described above.

For each gene expression vector, we performed our CAL network search as described with seven network topologies containing and, or and xor logic as well as a more complex combination of these Boolean functions. A rather low tolerance level (ftol = 4) was used, which turned out to capture most of the solution-space (>80% for all topologies). The solutions obtained were compared with the optimal solutions determined by means of an exhaustive search for the same seven Boolean logic functions using Grid computing facilities. The accuracy is expressed as the percentage of times that the algorithm finds the same solution as the exhaustive search.

Figure 4A shows the resulting accuracy. We observe that for solutions with f-scores between 5 and 6 already >95% accuracy is achieved, while for solutions with f-scores of ≥6, virtually 100% accuracy is achieved for each topology. For comparison, Figure 4A also gives the 75th percentiles of the solution distributions for each topology. Because solutions of interest (putatively significant solutions) are required to have f-scores substantially higher than the 75th percentile, we can conclude that our method achieves 100% accuracy for a reasonable operating range (solutions with f-scores between 4 and 5—where the accuracy is below 95%—are well the 75th percentile for all networks).

Fig. 4.
Algorithm performance in terms of accuracy and runtime under various conditions. (A) Bargraph displaying accuracy for different network topologies and different values of the f-score. For each of the network topologies the 75th percentile of the solution ...

While comparing our method to the method presented in Mukherjee et al. (2009), using simulated gene expression vectors and a predetermined random network (ground truth), we found that our method reaches higher true positive rates (see Supplementary Material). These results illustrate the benefit of searching for solutions for each of the network topologies separately, and employing a significance estimate to enforce parsimony.

Obtaining the same accuracy as an exhaustive search is only useful if this is achieved for runtimes that are substantially lower. To asses this, we randomly selected 200 gene expression vectors from the 1525 gene clusters and measured runtimes for both our CAL network search as well as the exhaustive search. Figure 4B–D shows these runtimes for a range of conditions. The boxplots represent the results obtained with the CAL network search and the horizontal lines the runtimes for the exhaustive search.

Figure 4B compares runtimes for different network topologies. Clearly, the branch and bound algorithm significantly outperforms the exhaustive search under all experimental conditions with differences in runtime of up to four orders of magnitude. For the three input networks in particular, the runtime required for exhaustive search (>5 h per gene per network) prohibits any further permutation procedures. The CAL network search, on the other hand, is able to find the solution in a matter of seconds, thereby enabling the large number of permutations required to obtain reliable significance estimates.

Compared to the variance in runtime of the exhaustive search, which was negligible, the variance of the CAL network search is quite high. This is expected as our CAL network search finishes rapidly when a good solution presents itself early in the search, while more time is needed to conclude that no acceptable solution is present. For a similar reason, the more complex networks, those containing xor logic, have higher median runtimes. On no occasion, however, does this increase runtimes > 100 s for any of the networks.

To evaluate performance as a function for dataset size we artificially increased the number of predictors and the number of samples (Fig. 4C). In addition, runtimes for different tolerance levels were examined (Fig. 4D). The number of predictors was increased by horizontally concatenating the original matrix L with copies of L containing 10% random bit-flips. The sample size was increased by vertically concatenating matrix L as well as all gene expression vectors g with copies of L and g, respectively. In case of the latter, normally distributed noise was added to the copies with σnoise = 0.1σg. We observe that for both the exhaustive search as well as the CAL network search runtimes increase substantially as the number of predictors increase. In case of the CAL network search, this is explained by the fact that many very good solutions are present due to the increased imbalance between the number of predictors and the sample size. It is expected, yet not quantitatively established, that better performance is observed when this balance is restored. The increase in runtime as a result of an increased number of samples is moderate, with a median runtime considerably lower than an exhaustive search for only two input networks. Likewise, increasing the tolerance level only moderately speeds up the CAL network search, demonstrating that runtime is robust for the setting of this parameter.

3.3 Combinatorial eQTLs

We performed the CAL network search for the set of 1525 high-potential gene clusters. The complete search (e.g. for all gene clusters and all topologies) was repeated 100 times using a permuted version of the gene-expression vectors. For each topology, this resulted in a null-distribution containing 152 500 values, which was used to estimate q-values for each of the resulting solutions. We considered network topologies with a maximum of three inputs listed in Supplementary Figure S5. Notably, we included two single-input networks to account for direct positive and negative association, respectively, which is equivalent to positive association with the D2 and B6 allele, respectively. This ensures that the algorithm has the option of choosing the least complex model in case an eQTL is capable of explaining a significant portion of the variance in the expression of the gene cluster.

Figure 5A gives an overview of the number of gene clusters for which the output of a CAL network significantly (at the 10% FDR level) associated with its expression (red bars). To obtain additional confidence in the significance threshold, we calculated q-values for 10 additional permutations of the whole dataset. For none of the network topologies did the mean number of significant gene clusters across the 10 permutations exceed 0.6, indicating that the expected number of false discoveries is conservatively kept under control. The yellow bars indicate the number of significant gene clusters after model size selection based on the q-value as detailed in Section 2. It appears that most of the gene clusters for which association is observed can be explained by one of the single input networks. For nine gene clusters (corresponding to 17 genes), however, a CAL network was capable of explaining significantly more of the variance than one of the single input networks or any one of the other CAL networks.

Fig. 5.
(A) Bargraph with an overview of the number of gene clusters for which a significant (10% FDR) solution is found. Network topologies are sorted according to the 10% FDR level (blue line). (B) CAL networks significant at 10% FDR. The color and shape of ...

The network topologies, q-values and association scores of the significant CAL networks are given in Figure 5B. Not surprisingly, for all gene clusters at the output of these networks, the combination of loci is vastly superior in explaining the variance in expression over any of the markers in isolation. Interestingly, many of these genomic regions would have been missed, as in seven of the networks the best markers do not coincide with one of the inputs of the CAL network.

The sets of markers that were found as the optimal inputs for the seven topologies were mapped onto the genome. Combinatorial eQTLs (ceQTL) were then defined as stretches of consecutive markers. A genome map of the (c)eQTLs is given in Figure 5C, showing the eQTLs (red and blue crosses for positive and negative association, respectively) and ceQTLs (colored symbols) on the x-axis versus the genomic positions of the probes measuring expression on the y-axis. The numbers near the ceQTL symbols correspond to the inputs of the CAL networks depicted in Figure 5B.

Before we zoom in on one of the CAL networks in more detail, some general observations can be made. In particular, we note that in some cases overlap exists among the markers selected at the inputs of the CAL networks and between other network inputs and eQTLs. In seven instances, the identified ceQTLs coincide with eQTLs (connected by black dashed lines in the figure). Some of these eQTLs are located in cis. The finding of CAL networks that share one of their inputs (ceQTLs) with an eQTL suggests that the local genotype associated with the eQTL is involved in the regulation of a local gene (cis-regulation), but in addition collaborates with the other CAL input locus/loci to regulate the CAL network output gene(s). Furthermore, two of the CAL networks (ranked sixth and ninth) share a ceQTL between the inputs (connected by red dashed lines). It is not inconceivable that a gene present in this ceQTL is indeed involved in the regulation of the target genes of both networks, but that the interaction partners through which this regulation is established differs for both target genes.

Among the list of output genes of the nine most significant CAL networks is Lilrb4 (ranked third). Lilrb4 encodes a leukocyte immunoglobulin-like receptor which is expressed on the surface of mast cells, neutrophils, and macrophages. It plays a key role in counter-regulating the inflammatory response to prevent pathologic excessive inflammation (reviewed in Katz, 2007).

Figure 6 shows small regions around the ceQTLs that were selected as inputs for the CAL network of Lilrb4. For each region, the association was measured between the expression of Lilrb4 and the individual markers (blue lines). The red lines, on the other hand, give the association score for the network output. Clearly, the association between the logical combination of inputs and the expression of Lilrb4 is markedly higher than considering any of the markers in isolation. The regions for which the red curves reach their maximum correspond to the ceQTLs.

Fig. 6.
Input regions of the CAL network for Lilrb4 The line graphs give the f-score for association between the output gene and the individual markers (blue) and the network output (red). The latter was computed by taking the maximum f-score of the network using ...

The Boolean heat map, displayed at the bottom of Figure 6, outlines the genotype of one particular combination of genetic markers in the ceQTLs across the BXD mouse strains. The bottom two rows of this heat map give the optimal network output and predicted output, respectively. For the Lilrb4 network the optimal network output is exactly recapitulated by the CAL network. For Lilrb4 elevated expression is exclusively observed in case of B6 alleles in both the ceQTL regions of Chromosomes 7 and 19.

To focus our attention to the most interesting genes in the ceQTLs we performed a literature search using Ingenuity pathway analysis (Ingenuity©Systems, Interestingly, we found a substantial number of interactions between genes localized in the ceQTLs and Lilrb4. For example, the literature search revealed a link between Apba1 (located in the ceQTL region on Chromosome 19) and Lilrb4. Both protein products have been described to bind ITGB3 (Calderwood et al., 2003; Castells et al., 2001). In addition, the search revealed a link between Psenen (Chromosome 7 ceQTL) and Apba1 (Chromosome 19 ceQTL). Both protein products have been described to bind PSEN1 and PSEN2 (Biederer et al., 2002; Steiner et al., 2002).

While literature is able to link the genes in the ceQTLs to Lilrb4 and thereby gives the first clues as to how the expression of Lilrb4 may be regulated, we do not exclude that other interactions (not yet represented in literature) exist. In any case, the result of our method should provide a set of testable hypotheses that can be validated in the laboratory.


Unravelling (transcriptional) regulatory networks by inferring complex associations, for instance, between genotype and gene expression, necessitates algorithms that take into account possible (allele-specific) interactions. For this purpose, we have proposed a method to efficiently infer CAL networks, i.e. small logic networks in which allele-specific interactions are modeled by Boolean functions. To find the best possible fit of the model given the data, a computationally challenging optimization problem had to be solved. This was achieved by rewriting the optimization such that it could be effectively solved by a customized branch and bound algorithm. Proof and empirical evidence for optimality of the solution, under appropriate conditions, was given. At the same time, differences in runtimes of up to four orders of magnitude were observed when compared to exhaustive search.

Because the CAL network search is able to find the optimal solution in a matter of seconds a permutation procedure becomes feasible, which can be employed to obtain estimates of the FDR. This is a major advantage as the resulting q-values allow selection of the most parsimonious model and enable ranking the network topologies in terms of their complexity.

We demonstrated our algorithm on a genetical genomics dataset, and found that, from the 1525 gene clusters (2913 genes) that resulted after selection of high potential genes, 9 gene clusters (17 genes) were significantly associated (at 10% FDR level) through a logical combination of genomic loci rather than a single eQTL. Notably, without incorporating the complex interactions, these associations would have gone unnoticed. Many of the discovered input regions were found to overlap eQTLs or were shared inputs of CAL networks explaining the expression of other genes, suggesting that these regions, indeed, are involved in transcriptional regulation.


The authors thank Daoud Sie and Leonid V. Bystrykh for their valuable input.

Funding: This work was part of the BioRange programme of the Netherlands Bioinformatics Centre (NBIC), which is supported by a BSIK grant through the Netherlands Genomics Initiative (NGI); Dutch Life Science Grid initiative of NBIC and the Dutch e-Science Grid BiG Grid, SARA - High Performance Computing and Visualisation; Netherlands Genomics Initiative (Horizon, 050-71-055); Dutch Cancer Society (RUG2007-3729); Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) (VICI to G.d.H., 918-76-601); European Community (EuroSystem, 200720).

Conflict of Interest: none declared.


1Since we optimize Equation 3 for each Bj separately, we omit its subscript if its meaning is inconsequential.


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