Predicting site-specific human selective pressure using evolutionary signatures

School of Computer Science, McGill University, 3630 University, Montreal, QC, Canada H3A 2B2.
Bioinformatics (Impact Factor: 4.98). 07/2011; 27(13):i266-74. DOI: 10.1093/bioinformatics/btr241
Source: PubMed


The identification of non-coding functional regions of the human genome remains one of the main challenges of genomics. By observing how a given region evolved over time, one can detect signs of negative or positive selection hinting that the region may be functional. With the quickly increasing number of vertebrate genomes to compare with our own, this type of approach is set to become extremely powerful, provided the right analytical tools are available.
A large number of approaches have been proposed to measure signs of past selective pressure, usually in the form of reduced mutation rate. Here, we propose a radically different approach to the detection of non-coding functional region: instead of measuring past evolutionary rates, we build a machine learning classifier to predict current substitution rates in human based on the inferred evolutionary events that affected the region during vertebrate evolution. We show that different types of evolutionary events, occurring along different branches of the phylogenetic tree, bring very different amounts of information. We propose a number of simple machine learning classifiers and show that a Support-Vector Machine (SVM) predictor clearly outperforms existing tools at predicting human non-coding functional sites. Comparison to external evidences of selection and regulatory function confirms that these SVM predictions are more accurate than those of other approaches.
The predictor and predictions made are available at

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    ABSTRACT: Selective pressures at the DNA level shape genes into profiles consisting of patterns of rapidly evolving sites and sites withstanding change. These profiles remain detectable even when protein sequences become extensively diverged. A common task in molecular biology is to infer functional, structural or evolutionary relationships by querying a database using an algorithm. However, problems arise when sequence similarity is low. This study presents an algorithm that uses the evolutionary rate at codon sites, the dN/dS (ω) parameter, coupled to a substitution matrix as an alignment metric for detecting distantly related proteins. The algorithm, called BLOSUM-FIRE couples a newer and improved version of the original FIRE (Functional Inference using Rates of Evolution) algorithm with an amino acid substitution matrix in a dynamic scoring function. The enigmatic hepatitis B virus X protein was used as a test case for BLOSUM-FIRE and its associated database EvoDB. The evolutionary rate based approach was coupled with a conventional BLOSUM substitution matrix. The two approaches are combined in a dynamic scoring function, which uses the selective pressure to score aligned residues. The dynamic scoring function is based on a coupled additive approach that scores aligned sites based on the level of conservation inferred from the ω values. Evaluation of the accuracy of this new implementation, BLOSUM-FIRE, using MAFFT alignment as reference alignments has shown that it is more accurate than its predecessor FIRE. Comparison of the alignment quality with widely used algorithms (MUSCLE, T-COFFEE, and CLUSTAL Omega) revealed that the BLOSUM-FIRE algorithm performs as well as conventional algorithms. Its main strength lies in that it provides greater potential for aligning divergent sequences and addresses the problem of low specificity inherent in the original FIRE algorithm. The utility of this algorithm is demonstrated using the Hepatitis B virus X (HBx) protein, a protein of unknown function, as a test case. This study describes the utility of an evolutionary rate based approach coupled to the BLOSUM62 amino acid substitution matrix in inferring protein domain function. We demonstrate that such an approach is robust and performs as well as an array of conventional algorithms.
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