Genome context methods have been introduced in the last decade as automatic methods to predict functional relatedness between genes in a target genome using the patterns of existence and relative locations of the homologs of those genes in a set of reference genomes. Much work has been done in the application of these methods to different bioinformatics tasks, but few papers present a systematic study of the methods and their combination necessary for their optimal use.
We present a thorough study of the four main families of genome context methods found in the literature: phylogenetic profile, gene fusion, gene cluster, and gene neighbor. We find that for most organisms the gene neighbor method outperforms the phylogenetic profile method by as much as 40% in sensitivity, being competitive with the gene cluster method at low sensitivities. Gene fusion is generally the worst performing of the four methods. A thorough exploration of the parameter space for each method is performed and results across different target organisms are presented.
We propose the use of normalization procedures as those used on microarray data for the genome context scores. We show that substantial gains can be achieved from the use of a simple normalization technique. In particular, the sensitivity of the phylogenetic profile method is improved by around 25% after normalization, resulting, to our knowledge, on the best-performing phylogenetic profile system in the literature.
Finally, we show results from combining the various genome context methods into a single score. When using a cross-validation procedure to train the combiners, with both original and normalized scores as input, a decision tree combiner results in gains of up to 20% with respect to the gene neighbor method. Overall, this represents a gain of around 15% over what can be considered the state of the art in this area: the four original genome context methods combined using a procedure like that used in the STRING database. Unfortunately, we find that these gains disappear when the combiner is trained only with organisms that are phylogenetically distant from the target organism.
Our experiments indicate that gene neighbor is the best individual genome context method and that gains from the combination of individual methods are very sensitive to the training data used to obtain the combiner's parameters. If adequate training data is not available, using the gene neighbor score by itself instead of a combined score might be the best choice.