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In a previous post I wrote about How not to perform a differential expression analysis. In response to my post, Rob Patro, Geet Duggal, Michael I Love, Rafael Irizarry and Carl Kingsford wrote a detailed response. Below is my point-by-point rebuttal to their response (the figures and results in this blog post can be generated using the scripts in the Bits of DNA GitHub repository):

1. In Figure 1 of their response, Patro et al. show an MA plot and state that “if it were true that these methods are ‘very very’ similar one would see most log-ratios close to 0 (within the red lines).” This is true. Below is the MA plot for kallisto with default parameters and Salmon with the –gcBias flag:


96.6% of the points lie within the red lines. Since this constitutes most of the points, it seems reasonable to conclude that the methods are indeed very very similar. When both programs are run in default mode, as I did in my blog post, 98.9% of the points lie within the red lines. Thus, using the criterion of Patro et al., the programs have very very similar, or near identical, output. These numbers are conservative, computed by omitting transcripts where both kallisto and Salmon determine that a transcript has zero abundance.

2. Furthermore, Patro et al. explain that their MA plot in Figure 1 “demonstrate[s] how deceiving count scatter plots can be in this particular context.” There is, superficially, some merit to this claim. The MA plot above looks like a smudge of points and seems at odds with the fact that 96.6% of the points lie within the red lines. However the plot displays 198,457 points corresponding to 198,457 quantified transcripts, and as a result many points obfuscate each other. The alpha parameter in ggplot2 sets the opacity/transparency of points, and should be used in such a case to reveal the density of points (see, e.g. Supplementary Figure 19 of Love et al. 2016). Below is a plot of the exact same points with alpha=0.01:


An R animation that interpolates between the two MA plots above shows the same points, with varying opacity parameters (alpha=1 -> 0.01) and helps to demonstrate how deceiving MA plots can be in this particular context:


3. The Patro et al. response fails to distinguish between two different comparisons I made in my blog post: (1) comparisons of default kallisto to default Salmon, and (2) default kallisto to Salmon with the –gcBias option. Comparisons of the programs with default options is important because with those options their output is near identical, and, as I explain in my blog post, this is not some cosmic coincidence but a result of Salmon directly implementing the key ideas of pseudoalignment. The Patro et al. 2017 paper is also not just about GC bias correction, as the authors claim in their response, but rather it is also “the Salmon paper” a descriptor that Patro et al. use 24 times in their response. Furthermore, when Patro et al. are asked about how to run Salmon they recommend running it with default options (see e.g. the epilogue below or the way Patro  et al. run Salmon for analysis of the Bealieau-Jones-Greene described in #5) so that a comparison of the programs in default mode is of direct relevance to users.

In regards to the GC bias correction, Patro et al. 2017 claim in their abstract that “[GC bias correction] substantially improves the accuracy of abundance estimates and the sensitivity of subsequence differential expression analysis”. This is a general statement, not one about the sort of niche use-cases they describe in their response. The question then is whether Patro et al. provides support for this general statement and my argument has always been that it does not.

4. Patro et al. criticize my use of the ERR188140 sample to demonstrate how similar Salmon is to kallisto. They write that “the blog post author selected a single sample…”(boldface theirs) to claim that Salmon and kallisto produce output with “very very strong similarity (≃)” and raise the possibility that it was cherry picked, noting that “this particular sample has less GC-content bias” and marking it in a plot. I used ERR188140 because it was our sample of choice for many of the demonstrative analyses in the Bray et al. 2016 paper (see the kallisto paper analysis Github repository where the sample is mentioned since February 2016) and for that paper we had already generated the RSEM quantifications (and the alignments required for running the program), thus saving time in making the PCA analysis for my blogpost. ERR188140 was chosen for Bray et al. 2016 because it was the most deeply sequenced sample in the GEUVADIS dataset.

5. Contrary to the claim by Patro et al. in their response that I examined only one dataset, I also included in my post links with references to specific figures from four other papers that independently found that kallisto is near identical to Salmon. The fairest example for consideration is the additional analysis I mentioned of Beaulieu-Jones and Greene, and separately Patro, of the RNA-Seq dataset from Boj et al. 2015. With that analysis, there can be no claims of cherry-picking. The dataset was chosen by the authors of Beaulieu-Jones and Greene 2017, kallisto quantifications were produced by Beaulieu-Jones and Greene, and Salmon quantifications were prepared by Patro. Presumably the main author of the Salmon program ran Salmon with the best settings possible for the experiment. The fact that different individuals ran the programs is highlighted by the fact that they are not even based on identical annotations. They used different versions of RefSeq: Beaulieu-Jones and Greene quantified with 35,026 transcripts and Patro, who quantified later, used an annotation with 35,882 transcripts. There are eight samples in the analysis and MA plots, made by restricting the analysis to the transcripts in common, all look alike. As an example, the MA plot for SRR1654626  is:


The fraction of points within the red lines, calculated as before by omitting points at (0,0), is 98.6%.  The Patro analysis of Bealieau-Greene was performed on March 8, 2017 with version 0.8.1 of Salmon, well after the –gcBias option was implemented, the Salmon (version 3 preprint describing the GC correction) published, and the paper submitted. The dates are verifiable in the GitHub repository with the Salmon results.

6. In arguing that kallisto and Salmon are different Patro et al. provide an interesting formula for the correlation for two random variables X and X+Y where X and Y are independent but its use in this context is a sleight of hand. The formula, which is a simple exercise for the reader to derive from the definition of correlation, is


It follows by Taylor series expansion that this is approximately

cor(X,X+Y) \approx 1-\frac{1}{2}\frac{Var(Y)}{Var(X)}.

and if sd(X) is about 3.4 and sd(Y) about 0.5 (Patro et al.‘s numbers), then by inspection cor(X,X+Y) will be 0.99. In sample SRR1654626 shown above, when ignoring transcripts where both programs output 0, sd(X)=3.5 and sd(Y) = 0.43 which are fairly close to Patro et al.‘s numbers. However Patro et al. proceed with a non sequitur, writing that “this means that a substantial difference of 25% between reported counts is typical”. While the correlation formula makes no distributional assumptions, the 25% difference seems to be based on an assumption that Y is normally distributed. Specifically, if is normally distributed with mean 0 and standard deviation 0.5 then |Y| is half-normally distributed and a typical percent difference based on the median is

(2^{0.5 \cdot \sqrt{2}\cdot \mbox{erf}^{-1}(0.5)}-1)\cdot 100 = 26.3\% \approx 25\%.

However the differences between kallisto and Salmon quantifications are far from normally distributed. The plot below shows the distribution of the differences between log2 counts of kallisto and salmon (again excluding cases where both programs output 0):


The blue vertical line is positioned at the median, which is at 0.001433093. This means that the typical difference between reported counts is not 25% but rather 0.1%.

7.  In their response, Patro et al. highlight the recent Zhang et al. 2017 paper that benchmarked a number of RNA-Seq programs, including kallisto and Salmon. Patro et al. comment on a high correlation between a mode of Salmon that quantifies based with transcriptome alignments and RSEM. First, the correlations reported by Zhang et al. are Pearson correlations, and not Spearman correlations that I focused on in my blog post. Second, the alignment mode of Salmon has nothing to do with pseudoalignment, in that read alignments (in the case of Zhang et al. 2017 produced with STAR) are quantified directly, in a workflow the same as that of RSEM. Investigation of the similarities between alignment Salmon and RSEM that led to the high correlation is beyond the scope of this post. Finally, in discussing the similarities between programs the authors (Zhang et al.) write “Salmon, Sailfish and Kallisto, cluster tightly together with R 2  > 0.96.”

8. In regards to the EM algorithm, Patro et al. acknowledge that Salmon uses kallisto’s termination criteria and have updated their code to reflect this fact. I thank them for doing so, however this portion of their response is bizarre:

“What if Salmon executed more iterations of its offline phase and outperformed kallisto? Then its improvement could be attributed to the extra iterations instead of the different model, bias correction, or online phase. By using the same termination criteria for the offline phase of Salmon, we eliminate a confounding variable in the analysis.”

If Salmon could perform better by executing more iterations of the EM algorithm it should certainly do so. This is because parameters hard-wired in the code should be set in a way that provides users with the best possible performance.

9. At one point in their response Patro et al. write that “It is expected that Salmon, without the GC bias correction feature, will be similar to kallisto”, essentially conceding that default Salmon \simeq default kallisto, a main point of my blog post. However Patro et al. continue to insist that Salmon with GC bias correction significantly improves on kallisto. Patro et al. have repeated a key experiment (the GEUVADIS based simulation) in their paper, replacing the t-test with a workflow they describe as “the pipeline suggested by the post’s author”. To be clear, this is the workflow preferred by Patro et al.:

As explained in my post on How not to perform a differential expression analysis the reason that Love et al. recommend a DESeq2 workflow instead of a t-test for differential expression is because of the importance of regularizing variance estimates. This is made clear by repeating Patro et al.‘s GEUVADIS experiment with a typical three replicates per condition instead of eight:


With the t-test of transcripts Salmon cannot even achieve an FDR of less than 0.05.

10. Patro et al. find that switching to their recommended workflow (i.e. replacing the t-test with their own DESeq2) alters the difference between kallisto and Salmon at an FDR of 0.01 from 353% to 32%. Patro et al. describe this difference, in boldface, as “The results remain similar to the original published results when run using the accuser’s suggested pipeline.”  Note that Patro et al. refer to a typical difference of 0.1% between counts generated by kallisto and Salmon as “not very very similar” (point #6) while insisting that 353% and 32% aresimilar.

11. The reanalysis of the GEUVADIS differential expression experiment by Patro et al. also fails to address one of the most important critiques in my blogpost, namely that a typical experimental design will not deliberately confound bias with conditionThe plot below shows the difference between kallisto and Salmon in a typical experiment (3 replicates in each condition) followed by Love et al.’s recommended workflow (tximport -> DESeq2):


There is no apparent difference between kallisto and Salmon. Note that the samples in this experiment have the same GC bias as in Patro et al. 2017, the only difference being that samples are chosen randomly in a way that they are not confounded by batch. The lack of any observed difference in results between default kallisto and Salmon with the –gcBias option are the same with an 8×8 analysis:


There is no apparent difference between kallisto and Salmon, even though the simulation includes the same GC bias levels as in Patro et al. 2017 (just not confounded with condition) .

12. It is interesting to compare the 8×8 unconfounded experiment with the 8×8 confounded experiment.


While Salmon does improve on kallisto (although as discussed in point #10 the improvement is not 353% but rather 32% at an FDR of 0.01), the improvement in accuracy when performing an unconfounded experiment highlights why confounded experiments should not be performed in the first place.

13. Patro et al. claim that despite best intentions, “confounding of technical artifacts such as GC dependence with the biological comparison of interest does occur” and cite Gilad and Mizrahi-Man 2015. However the message of the Gilad and Mizrahi-Man paper is not that we must do our best to analyze confounded experiments. Rather, it is that with confounded experiments one may learn nothing at all. What they say is “In summary, we believe that our reanalysis indicates that the conclusions of the Mouse ENCODE Consortium papers pertaining to the clustering of the comparative gene expression data are unwarranted.” In other words, confounding of batch effect with variables of interest can render experiments worthless.

14. In response to my claim that GC bias has been reduced during the past 5 years, Patro et al. state:

A more informed assumption is that GC bias in sequencing data originates with PCR amplification and depends on thermocycler ramp speed (see, for example, Aird (2011) or t’ Hoen (2013)), and not from sequencing machines or reverse transcription protocols which may have improved in the past 5 years.

This statement is curious in that it seems to assume that, unlike sequencing machines or reverse transcription protocols, PCR amplification and thermocycler technology could not have improved in the past 5 years. As an example to the contrary, consider that just months before the publication of the GEUVADIS data, New England Biolabs released a new polymerase which claimed to address this very issue. GC bias is a ubiquitous issue in molecular biology and of course there are ongoing efforts to address it in the wet lab. Furthermore, continued research and benchmarking aimed at reducing GC bias, (see e.g. Thorner et al. 2014have led to marked improvements in library quality and standardization of experiments across labs. Anyone who performs bulk RNA-Seq, as we do in my lab, knows that RNA-Seq is no longer an ad hoc experiment.

15. Patro et al. write that

The point of the simulation was to demonstrate that, while modeling fragment sequence bias reduces gross mis-estimation (false reports of isoform switching across labs in real data — see for example Salmon Supplementary Figure 5 showing GEUVADIS data), the bias modeling does not lead to overall loss of signal. Consider that one could reduce false positives simply by attenuating signal or adding noise to all transcript abundances.

However none of the simulations or results in Patro et al. 2017 address the question of whether bias modeling leads to overall loss of signal. To answer it would require examining the true and false positives in a comparison of default Salmon and Salmon with –gcBias. Not only did Patro et al. not do the relevant intra-program comparisons, they did inter-program comparisons instead which clearly bear no relevance to the point they now claim they were making.

16. I want to make very clear that I believe that GC bias correction during RNA-Seq quantification is valuable and I agree with Patro et al. that it can be important for meta-analyses, especially of the kind that take place by large genome consortia. One of the interesting results in Patro et al. is the SEQC analysis (Supplementary Figure 4) which shows that that Salmon is more consistent in intra-center quantification in one sample (HBRR). However in a second experiment (UHRR) the programs are near identical in their quantification differences within and between centers and based on the results shown above I don’t believe that Patro et al. 2017 achieves its stated aim of showing that GC correction has an effect on typical differential analyses experiments that utilize typical downstream analyses.

17. I showed the results of running kallisto in default mode and Salmon with GC bias correction on a well-studied dataset from Trapnell et al. 2013. Patro et al. claim they were unable to reproduce my results, but that is because they performed a transcript level analysis despite the fact that I made it very clear in my post that I performed a gene level analysis. I chose to show results at the gene level to draw a contrast with Figure 3c of Trapnell et al. 2013. The results of Patro et al. at the transcript level show that even then the extent of overlap is remarkable. These results are consistent with the simulation results (see point #11).

18. The Salmon authors double down on their runtime analysis by claiming that “The running time discussion presented in the Salmon paper is accurate.” This is difficult to reconcile with two facts

(a) According to Patro et al.’s rebuttal “kallisto is faster when using a small number of threads” yet this was not presented in Patro et al. 2017.

(b) According to Patro et al. (see, e.g., the Salmon program GitHub), when running kallisto or Salmon with 30 threads what is being benchmarked is disk I/O and not the runtime of the programs.

If Patro et al. agree that to benchmark the speed of a program one must use a small number of threads, and Patro et al. agree that with a small number of threads kallisto is faster, then the only possible conclusion is that the running time discussion presented in the Salmon paper is not accurate.

19. The Patro et al. response has an entire section (3.1) devoted to explaining why quasimapping (used by Salmon) is distinct from pseudoalignment (introduced in the kallisto paper). Patro et al. describe quasimapping as “a different algorithm, different data structure, and computes different results.” Furthermore, in a blog post, Patro explained that RapMap (on which Salmon is based) implements both quasimapping and pseudoalignment, and that these are distinct concepts. He writes specifically that in contrast to the first algorithm provided by RapMap (pseudoalignment), “the second algorithm provided by RapMap — quasi-mapping — is a novel one”.

One of the reviewers of the Salmon paper recently published his review, which begins with the sentence “The authors present salmon, a new RNAseq quantification tool that uses pseudoalignment…” This directly contradicts the assertion of Patro et al. that quasimapping is “a different algorithm, different data structure” or that quasimapping is novel. In my blog post I provided a detailed walk-through that affirms that the reviewer is right. I showed how the quasimapping underlying Salmon is literally acting in identical ways on the k-mers in reads. Moreover, the results above show that Salmon, using quasimapping, does not “compute different results”. Unsurprisingly, its output is near identical to kallisto.

20. Patro et al. write that “The title of Sailfish paper contains the words ‘alignment-free’, which indicates that it was Sailfish that first presented the key idea of abandoning alignment. The term alignment-free has a long history in genomics and is used to describe methods in which the information inherent in a complete read is discarded in favor of the direct use of it’s substrings. Sailfish is indeed an alignment-free method because it shreds reads into constituent k-mers, and those are then operated on without regard to which read they originated from. The paper is aptly titled. The concept of pseudoalignment is distinct in that complete reads are associated to targets, even if base-pair alignments are not described.

21. Patro et al. write that “Salmon, including many of its main ideas, was widely known in the field prior to the kallisto preprint.” and mention that Zhang et al. 2015 included a brief description of Salmon. Zhang et al. 2015 was published on June 5, 2015, a month after the kallisto preprint was published, and its description of Salmon, though brief, was the first available for the program. Nowhere else, prior to the Zhang et al. publication, was there any description of what Salmon does or how it works, even at a high-level.

Notably, the paragraph on Salmon of Zhang et al. shows that Salmon, in its initial form, had nothing to do with pseudoalignment:

“Salmon is based on a novel lightweight alignment model that uses chains of maximal exact matches between sequencing fragments and reference transcripts to determine the potential origin of RNA‐seq reads.”

This is consistent with the PCA plot of my blog post which shows that initial versions of Salmon were very different from kallisto, and that Salmon \simeq kallisto only after Salmon switched to the use of pseudoalignment.

22. My blogpost elicited an intense discussion in the comments and on social media of whether Patro et al. adequately attributed key ideas of Salmon to kallisto. Patro et al. They did not.

Patro et al. reference numerous citations to kallisto in Patro et al. 2017 which I’ve reproduced below


Only two of these references attribute any aspect of Salmon to kallisto. One of them, the Salmon bootstrap, is described as “inspired by kallisto” (in fact it is identical to that of kallisto). There is only one citation in Salmon to the key idea that has made it near identical to kallisto, namely the use of pseudoalignment, and that is to the RapMap paper from the Patro group (Srivastava et al. 2016).

Despite boasting of a commitment to open source principles and embracing preprints, Patro et al. conveniently ignore the RapMap preprints (Srivastava et al. 2015). Despite many mentions of kallisto, none of the four versions of the preprint acknowledge the direct use of the ideas in Bray et al. 2016 in any way, shape or form. The intent of Srivastava et al. is very clear. In the journal version the authors still do not acknowledge that “quasi mapping” is just pseudoalignment implemented with a suffix array, instead using words such as “inspired” and “motivated” to obfuscate the truth. Wording matters.


Discussion of the Zhang et al. 2017 paper by Patro et al., along with a tweet by Lappalainen about programs not giving identical results lead me to look more deeply into the Zhang et al. 2017 paper.

The exploration turned out to be interesting. On the one hand, some figures in Zhang et al. 2017 contradict Lappalainen’s claim that “none of the methods seem to give identical results…”.  For example, Figure S4 from the paper shows quantifications for four genes where kallisto and Salmon produce near identical results.


On the other hand, Figure 7 from the paper is an example from a simulation on a single gene where kallisto performed very differently from Salmon:


I contacted the authors to find out how they ran kallisto and Salmon. It turns out that for all the results in the paper with the exception of Figure 7, the programs were run as follows:

·       kallisto quant -i $KAL_INDEX –fr-stranded –plaintext $DATADIR/${f}_1.fq  $DATADIR/${f}_2.fq -t 8 -o ./kallisto/

·       salmon quant -i $SALMON_INDEX -l ISF -1 $DATADIR/${f}_1.fq -2 $DATADIR/${f}_2.fq -p 8 -o salmon_em  –incompatPrior 0

We then exchanged some further emails, after which they sent the data (reads) for the figure, we ran kallisto on our end and found discordant results with what was reported in the paper, they re-ran kallisto on their end, and after these exchanges we converged to an updated (and corrected) figure which shows Sailfish \simeq kallisto but not Salmon \simeq kallisto. The updated figure, shown below, was made by Zhang et al. using the default mode of kallisto version 0.43.1:


Note that kallisto is near identical in performance to Sailfish, which I explained in my blog post about Salmon has also converged to kallisto. However Salmon is different.

It turned out that for this one figure, Salmon was run with a non-standard set of options, specifically with the additional option –numPreAuxModelSamples 0 (although notably Patro did not recommend using the –gcBias option). The recommendation to run with this option was made by Patro to Zhang et al. after they contacted him early in January 2017 to ask for the best way to run Salmon for the experiment. What the flag does is turn off the online phase of Salmon (hence the 0 in –numPreAuxModelSamples 0) that is used to initially estimate the fragment length distribution. There is a good rationale for using the flag, namely the very small number of reads in the simulation makes it impossible to accurately learn auxiliary parameters as one might with a full dataset. However on January 13th, Patro changed the behavior of the option in a way that allowed Salmon to optimize for the specific experiment at hand. The default fragment length distribution in Salmon had been set the same as that in Cufflinks (mean 200, standard deviation 80). These settings match typical experimental data, and were chosen by Cole Trapnell and myself after examining numerous biological datasets. Setting –numPreAuxModelSamples to 0 forced Salmon to use those parameters. However on January 13th Patro changed the defaults in Salmon to mean = 250 and standard deviation = 25The numbers 250 and 25 are precisely the defaults for the polyester program that simulates reads. Polyester (with default parameters) is what Zhang et al. 2017 used to simulate reads for Figure 7. 

Zhang et al. also contacted me on January 9th and I did not reply to their email. I had just moved institutions (from UC Berkeley to Caltech) on January 1st, and did not have the time to investigate in detail the issues they raised. I thank them for being forthcoming and helpful in reviewing Figure 7 post publication.

Returning to Lappalainen’s comment, it is true that Salmon results are different from kallisto in Figure 7 and one reason may be that Patro hard wired parameters for a flag that was used to match the parameters of the simulation. With the exception of that figure, throughout the paper Salmon \simeq kallisto, providing yet another example of an independent publication confirming the claims of my blog post.

Two years ago I wrote a blog post on being wrong. It’s not fun to admit being wrong, but sometimes it’s necessary. I have to admit to being wrong again.

In May 2015 my coauthors and I released software called kallisto for RNA-Seq and we published a preprint concurrently. Several months before that, in February 2015, when initial results with kallisto showed that its accuracy was competitive with state-of-the-art programs but that it could quantify a hundred or more times faster, I went to seek advice from a licensing officer at UC Berkeley about licensing options. Even though most software in bioinformatics is freely available to both academia and industry, I felt, for reasons I outlined in a previous blog post, that it was right that commercial users should pay a fee to use kallisto. I believed then, and still do now, that it’s right that institutions that support software development should benefit from its commercial use (UC Berkeley receives 2/3 of the royalties for commercially licensed products), that students are entitled to renumeration for software engineering work that does not directly support of their own research goals, and that funds are needed to support specialized personnel who can maintain/improve code and service user requests.

After some discussion with UC Berkeley staff, who were helpful every step of the way, I finally licensed kallisto using standard language from a UC Berkeley license, which provided free access to academics and non-profit institutions while requiring companies to contact UC Berkeley for a commercial license. I wouldn’t call the decision an experiment. I truly believed it was the right thing to do and convinced my coauthors on the project to go along with the decision. Unfortunately,

I was wrong.

Shortly after kallisto was released Titus Brown wrote a blog post titled “On licensing in bioinformatics software: use the BSD, Luke“. One critique he made against the type of licensing arrangement I secured can be paraphrased as “such licensing necessitates conversations with lawyers”. I scoffed at this comment at the time, thinking to myself ok, so what if lawyers need to be involved to do the right thing? I also scoffed at a tag he associated with his post: “lior-is-wrong”.

Prior to licensing kallisto, with the exception of one program, my software was released freely to academia and industry. The exception was the AVID alignment program, a project that launched shortly I arrived at UC Berkeley as a postdoc, and whose licensing terms were decided in large part by collaborators at LBNL. They had first licensed visualization software (for AVID alignments) called VISTA the same way, and I think they did that because they came from the protein folding community where such licensing is common. In any case, there hadn’t been much lawyering going on (as far as I was aware) with the AVID/VISTA projects and I also didn’t think too much about the broader issues surrounding licensing choices. Open source free licensing also seemed good and throughout the years I always let my students decide what license they wanted for the software they’d written. With kallisto standing to have a huge impact on companies, enabling them to directly profit (in $) from its speed, I decided it was timely to think about the pros and cons of different licenses again (it was later shown that kallisto does, indeed, greatly reduce costs for RNA-Seq analysis). This is the process that led up to the kallisto licensing, and the associated blog post I wrote.

However Titus Brown was right. Despite what I perceived to be best intentions from the UC Berkeley licensing staff and their counterparts at companies, what should have been simple licensing agreements signed and completed in a day, sometimes bogged down in lawyer infused negotiations. There were questions about indemnity clauses (prior to licensing kallisto I didn’t know what those were), payment terms, etc. etc. etc.  Some licenses were signed, but in some cases companies where I knew certain researchers wanted to use kallisto withdrew their requests due to term disagreements.

It did not take long for me to realize the mess that licensing involved. At the same time, I began to be buffeted by comments from colleagues and friends who argued zealously against the kallisto license in public. One colleague, I learned, refuses to read papers of software that is not licensed completely freely. I found out that Galaxy would not support kallisto, a decision I understood but that saddened me. So last year I went back to the licensing office and asked them to scrap the whole thing, and allow me to change the kallisto license to BSD. I wanted the licensing change to be immediate, and I was even happy to pay back (out of my own pocket) fees that may have been paid, but the change took many months to implement. I apologize for the delay. Had I known that even changing the license would be difficult, I would have done things differently from the outset. I did not make news of the pending license change public, because at first I was not sure that UC Berkeley would approve it at all. In any case, I’m now happy to say that kallisto is licensed with the permissive BSD 2-clause license.

[September 2, 2017: A response to this post has been posted by the authors of Patro et al. 2017, and I have replied to them with a rebuttal]

Spot the difference

One of the maxims of computational biology is that “no two programs ever give the same result.” This is perhaps not so surprising; after all, most journals seek papers that report a significant improvement to an existing method. As a result, when developing new methods, computational biologists ensure that the results of their tools are different, specifically better (by some metric), than those of previous methods. The maxim certainly holds for RNA-Seq tools. For example, the large symmetric differences displayed in the Venn diagram below (from Zhang et al. 2014) are typical for differential expression tool benchmarks:


In a comparison of RNA-Seq quantification methods, Hayer et al. 2015 showed that methods differ even at the level of summary statistics (in Figure 7 from the paper, shown below, Pearson correlation was calculated using ground truth from a simulation):


These sort of of results are the norm in computational genomics. Finding a pair of software programs that produce identical results is about as likely as finding someone who has won the lottery… twice…. in one week. Well, it turns out there has been such a person, and here I describe the computational genomics analog of that unlikely event. Below are a pair of plots made using two different RNA-Seq quantification programs:



The two volcano plots show the log-fold change in abundance estimated for samples sequenced by Boj et al. 2015, plotted against p-values obtained with the program limma-voom. I repeat: the plots were made with quantifications from two different RNA-Seq programs. Details are described in the next section, but before reading it first try playing spot the difference.

The reveal

The top plot is reproduced from Supplementary Figure 6 in Beaulieu-Jones and Greene, 2017. The quantification program used in that paper was kallisto, an RNA-Seq quantification program based on pseudoalignment that was published in

The bottom plot was made using the quantification program Salmon, and is reproduced from a GitHub repository belonging to the lead author of

Patro et al. 2017 claim that “[Salmon] achieves the same order-of-magnitude benefits in speed as kallisto and Sailfish but with greater accuracy”, however after being unable to spot any differences myself in the volcano plots shown above, I decided, with mixed feelings of amusement and annoyance, to check for myself whether the similarity between the programs was some sort of fluke. Or maybe I’d overlooked something obvious, e.g. the fact that programs may tend to give more similar results at the gene level than at the transcript level. Thus began this blog post.

In the figure below, made by quantifying RNA-Seq sample ERR188140 with the latest versions of the two programs, each point is a transcript and its coordinates are the estimated counts produced by kallisto and salmon respectively.


Strikingly, the Pearson correlation coefficient is 0.9996026. However astute readers will recognize a possible sleight of hand on my part. The correlation may be inflated by similar results for the very abundant transcripts, and the plot hides thousands of points in the lower left-hand corner. RNA-Seq analyses are notorious for such plots that appear sounds but can be misleading. However in this case I’m not hiding anything. The Pearson correlation computed with log(counts+1) is still extremely high (0.9955965) and the Spearman correlation, which gives equal balance to transcripts irrespective of the magnitude of their counts is 0.991206. My observation is confirmed in Table 3 of Sarkar et al. 2017 (note that in this table “quasi-mapping” corresponds to Salmon):


For context, the Spearman correlation between kallisto and a truly different RNA-Seq quantification program, RSEM, is 0.8944941. At this point I have to say… I’ve been doing computational biology for more than 20 years and I have never seen a situation where two ostensibly different programs output such similar results.

Patro and I are not alone in finding that Salmon \simeq kallisto (if kallisto and Salmon gave identical results I would write that Salmon = kallisto but in lieu of the missing 0.004 in correlation I use the symbol \, \simeq \, to denote the very very strong similarity). Examples in the literature abound, e.g. Supplementary Figure 5 from Majoros et al. 2017 (shown later in the post), Figure 1 from Everaert et al. 2017


or Figure 3A from Jin et al. 2017:


Just a few weeks ago, Sahraeian et al. 2017 published a comprehensive analysis of 39 RNA-Seq analysis tools and performed hierarchical clusterings of methods according to the similarity of their output. Here is one example (their Supplementary Figure 24a):


Amazingly, kallisto and Salmon-Quasi (the latest version of Salmon) are the two closest programs to each other in the entire comparison, producing output even more similar than the same program, e.g. Cufflinks or StringTie run with different alignments!

This raises the question of how, with kallisto published in May 2016 and Salmon \simeq kallisto, Patro et al. 2017 was published in one of the most respected scientific publications that advertises first and foremost that it “is a forum for the publication of novel methods and significant improvements to tried-and-tested basic research techniques in the life sciences.” ?

How not to perform a differential expression analysis

The Patro et al. 2017 paper presents a number of comparisons between kallisto and Salmon in which Salmon appears to dramatically improve on the performance of kallisto. For example Figure 1c from Patro et al. 2017 is a table showing an enormous performance difference between kallisto and Salmon:

Figure 1c from Patro et al. 2017

Figure 1c from Patro et al. 2017.

At a false discovery rate of 0.01, the authors claim that in a simulation study where ground truth is known Salmon identifies 4.5 times more truly differential transcripts than kallisto!

This can explain how Salmon was published, namely the reviewers and editor believed Patro et al.’s claims that Salmon significantly improves on previous work. In one analysis Patro et al. provide a p-value to help the “significance” stick. They write that “we found that Salmon’s distribution of mean absolute relative differences was significantly smaller (Mann-Whitney U test, P=0.00017) than those of kallisto. But how can the result Salmon >> kallisto, be reconciled with the fact that everybody repeatedly finds that Salmon \simeq kallisto?

A closer look reveals three things:

  1. In a differential expression analysis billed as “a typical downstream analysis” Patro et al. did not examine differential expression results for a typical biological experiment with a handful of replicates. Instead they examined a simulation of two conditions with eight replicates in each.
  2. The large number of replicates allowed them to apply the log-ratio t-test directly to abundance estimates based on transcript per million (TPM) units, rather than estimated counts which are required for methods such as their own DESeq2.
  3. The simulation involved generation of GC bias in an approach compatible with the inference model, with one batch of eight samples exhibiting “weak GC content dependence” while the other batch of eight exhibiting “more severe fragment-level GC bias.” Salmon was run in a GC bias correction mode.

These were unusual choices by Patro et al. What they did was allow Patro et al. to showcase the performance of their method in a way that leveraged the match between one of their inference models and the procedure for simulating the reads. The showcasing was enabled by having a confounding variable (bias) that exactly matches their condition variable, the use of TPM units to magnify the impact of that effect on their inference, simulation with a large number of replicates to enable the use of TPM,  which was possible because with many replicates one could directly apply the log t-test. This complex chain of dependencies is unraveled below:

There is a reason why log-fold changes are not directly tested in standard RNA-Seq differential expression analyses. Variance estimation is challenging with few replicates and RNA-Seq methods developers understood this early on. That is why all competitive methods for differential expression analysis such as DESeq/DESeq2, edgeR, limma-voom, Cuffdiff, BitSeq, sleuth, etc. regularize variance estimates (i.e., perform shrinkage) by sharing information across transcripts/genes of similar abundance. In a careful benchmarking of differential expression tools, Shurch et al. 2016 show that log-ratio t-test is the worst method. See, e.g., their Figure 2:

Figure 2 from Schurch et al. 2016

Figure 2 from Schurch et al. 2016. The four vertical panels show FPR and TPR for programs using 3,6,12 and 20 biological replicates (in yeast). Details are in the Schurch et al. 2016 paper.

The log-ratio t-test performs poorly not only when the number of replicates is small and regularization of variance estimates is essential. Schurch et al. specifically recommend DESeq2 (or edgeR) when up to 12 replicates are performed. In fact, the log-ratio t-test was so bad that it didn’t even make it into their Table 2 “summary of recommendations”.

The authors of Patro et al. 2017 are certainly well-aware of the poor performance of the log-ratio t-test. After all, one of them was specifically thanked in the Schurch et al. 2016 paper “for his assistance in identifying and correcting a bug”. Moreover, the recommended program by Schurch etal. (DESeq2) was authored by one of the coauthors on the Patro et al. paper, who regularly and publicly advocates for the use of his programs (and not the log-ratio t-test):

This recommendation has been codified in a detailed RNA-Seq tutorial where M. Love et al. write that “This [Salmon + tximport] is our current recommended pipeline for users”.

In Soneson and Delorenzi, 2013, the authors wrote that “there is no general consensus regarding which [RNA-Seq differential expression] method performs best in a given situation” and despite the development of many methods and benchmarks since this influential review, the question of how to perform differential expression analysis continues to be debated. While it’s true that “best practices” are difficult to agree on, one thing I hope everyone can agree on is that in a “typical downstream analysis” with a handful of replicates

do not perform differential expression with a log-ratio t-test.

Turning to Patro et al.‘s choice of units, it is important to note that the requirement of shrinkage for RNA-Seq differential analysis is the reason most differential expression tools require abundances measured in counts as input, and do not use length normalized units such as Transcripts Per Million (TPM). In TPM units the abundance \rho_t for a transcript t is \rho_t \propto \frac{c_t}{N \cdot l_t} where c_t are the estimated counts for transcript t, l_t is the (effective) length of t and N the number of total reads. Whereas counts are approximately Poisson distributed (albeit with some over-dispersion), variance estimates of abundances in TPM units depend on the lengths used in normalization and therefore cannot be used directly for regularization of variance estimation. Furthermore, the dependency of TPM on effective lengths means that abundances reported in TPM are very sensitive to the estimates of effective length.

This is why, when comparing the quantification accuracy of different programs, it is important to compare abundances using estimated counts. This was highlighted in Bray et al. 2016: “Estimated counts were used rather than transcripts per million (TPM) because the latter is based on both the assignment of ambiguous reads and the estimation of effective lengths of transcripts, so a program might be penalized for having a differing notion of effective length despite accurately assigning reads.” Yet Patro et al. perform no comparisons of programs in terms of estimated counts.

A typical analysis

The choices of Patro et al. in designing their benchmarks are demystified when one examines what would have happened had they compared Salmon to kallisto on typical data with standard downstream differential analysis tools such as their own tximport and DESeq2. I took the definition of “typical” from one of the Patro et al. coauthors’ own papers (Soneson et al. 2016): “Currently, one of the most common approaches is to define a set of non-overlapping targets (typically, genes) and use the number of reads overlapping a target as a measure of its abundance, or expression level.”

The Venn diagram below shows the differences in transcripts detected as differentially expressed when kallisto and Salmon are compared using the workflow the authors recommend publicly (quantifications -> tximport -> DESeq2) on a typical biological dataset with three replicates in each of two conditions. The number of overlapping genes is shown for a false discovery rate of 0.05 on RNA-Seq data from Trapnell et al. 2014:


A Venn diagram showing the overlap in genes predicted to be differential expressed by kallisto (blue) and Salmon (pink). Differential expression was performed with DESeq2 using transcript-level counts estimated by kallisto and Salmon and imported to DESeq2 with tximport. Salmon was run with GC bias correction.

This example provides Salmon the benefit of the doubt- the dataset was chosen to be older (when bias was more prevalent) and Salmon was not run in default mode but rather with GC bias correction turned on (option –gcBias).

When I saw these numbers for the first time I gasped. Of course I shouldn’t have been surprised; they are consistent with repeated published experiments in which comparisons of kallisto and Salmon have revealed near identical results. And while I think it’s valuable to publish confirmation of previous work, I did wonder whether Nature Methods would have accepted the Patro et al. paper had the authors conducted an actual “typical downstream analysis”.

What about the TPM?

Patro et al. utilized TPM based comparisons for all the results in their paper, presumably to highlight the improvements in accuracy resulting from better effective length estimates. Numerous results in the paper suggest that Salmon is much more accurate than kallisto. However I had seen a figure in Majoros et al. 2017 that examined the (cumulative) distribution of both kallisto and Salmon abundances in TPM units (their Supplementary Figure 5) in which the curves literally overlapped at almost all thresholds:


The plot above was made with Salmon v0.7.2 so in fairness to Patro et al. I remade it using the ERR188140 dataset mentioned above with Salmon v0.8.2:


The distribution of abundances (in TPM units) as estimated by kallisto (blue circles) and Salmon (red stars).

The blue circles correspond to kallisto and the red stars inside to Salmon. With the latest version of Salmon the similarity is even higher than what Majoros et al. observed! The Spearman correlation between kallisto and Salmon with TPM units is 0.9899896.

It’s interesting to examine what this means for a (truly) typical TPM analysis. One way that TPMs are used is to filter transcripts (or genes) by some threshold, typically TPM >  1 (in another deviation from “typical”, a key table in Patro et al. 2017 – Figure 1d – is made by thresholding with TPM > 0.1). The Venn diagram below shows the differences between the programs at the typical TPM > 1  threshold:


A Venn diagram showing the overlap in transcripts predicted by kallisto and Salmon to have estimated abundance > 1 TPM.

The figures above were made with Salmon 0.8.2 run in default mode. The correlation between kallisto and Salmon (in TPM) units decreases a tiny amount, from 0.9989224 to 0.9974325 with the –gcBias option and even the Spearman correlation decreases by only 0.011 from 0.9899896 to 0.9786092.

I think it’s perfectly fine for authors to present their work in the best light possible. What is not ok is to deliberately hide important and relevant truth, which in this case is that Salmon \, \simeq \, kallisto.

A note on speed

One of the claims in Patro et al. 2017 is that “[the speed of Salmon] roughly matches the speed of the recently introduced kallisto.” The Salmon claim is based on a benchmark of an experiment (details unknown) with 600 million 75bp paired-end reads using 30 threads. Below are the results of a similar benchmark of Salmon showing time to process 19 samples from Boj et al. 2015 with variable numbers of threads:


First, Salmon with –gcBias is considerably slower than default Salmon. Furthermore, there is a rapid decrease in performance gain with increasing number of threads, something that should come as no surprise. It is well known that quantification can be I/O bound which means that at some point, extra threads don’t provide any gain as the disk starts grinding limiting access from the CPUs. So why did Patro et al. choose to benchmark runtime with 30 threads?

The figure below provides a possible answer:


In other words, not only is Salmon \simeq kallisto in accuracy, but contrary to the claims in Patro et al. 2017, kallisto is faster. This result is confirmed in Table 1 of Sarkar et al. 2017 who find that Salmon is slower by roughly the same factor as seen above (in the table “quasi-mapping” is Salmon).



Having said that, the speed differences between kallisto and Salmon should not matter much in practice and large scale projects made possible with kallisto (e.g. Vivian et al. 2017) are possible with Salmon as well. Why then did the authors not report their running time benchmarks honestly?




The first common notion

The Patro et al. 2017 paper uses the term “quasi-mapping” to describe an algorithm, published in Srivastava et al. 2016, for obtaining their (what turned out to be near identical to kallisto) results. I have written previously how “quasi-mapping” is the same as pseudoalignment as an alignment concept, even though Srivastava et al. 2016 initially implemented pseudoalignment differently than the way we described it originally in our preprint in Bray et al. 2015. However the reviewers of Patro et al. 2017 may be forgiven for assuming that “quasi-mapping” is a technical advance over pseudoalignment. The Srivastava et al. paper is dense and filled with complex technical detail. Even for an expert in alignment/RNA-Seq it is not easy to see from a superficial reading of the paper that “quasi-mapping” is an equivalent concept to kallisto’s pseudoalignment (albeit implemented with suffix arrays instead of a de Bruijn graph). Nevertheless, the key to the paper is a simple sentence: “Specifically, the algorithm [RapMap, which is now used in Salmon] reports the intersection of transcripts appearing in all hits” in the section 2.1 of the paper. That’s the essence of pseudoalignment right there. The paper acknowledges as much, “This lightweight consensus mechanism is inspired by Kallisto ( Bray et al. , 2016 ), though certain differences exist”. Well, as shown above, those differences appear to have made no difference in standard practice, except insofar as the Salmon implementation of pseudoalignment being slower than the one in Bray et al. 2016.

Srivastava et al. 2016 and Patro et al. 2017 make a fuss about the fact that their “quasi-mappings” take into account the starting positions of reads in transcripts, thereby including more information than a “pure” pseudoalignment. This is a pedantic distinction Patro et al. are trying to create. Already in the kallisto preprint (May 11, 2015),  it was made clear that this information was trivially accessible via a reasonable approach to pseudoalignment: “Once the graph and contigs have been constructed, kallisto stores a hash table mapping each k-mer to the contig it is contained in, along with the position within the contig.”

In other words, Salmon is not producing near identical results to kallisto due to an unprecedented cosmic coincidence. The underlying method is the same. I leave it to the reader to apply Euclid’s first common notion:

Things which equal the same thing are also equal to each other.


While Salmon is now producing almost identical output to kallisto and is based on the same principles and methods, this was not the case when the program was first released. The history of the Salmon program is accessible via the GitHub repository, which recorded changes to the code, and also via the bioRxiv preprint server where the authors published three versions of the Salmon preprint prior to its publication in Nature Methods.

The first preprint was published on the BioRxiv on June 27, 2015. It followed shortly on the heels of the kallisto preprint which was published on May 11, 2015. However the first Salmon preprint described a program very different from kallisto. Instead of pseudoalignment, Salmon relied on chaining SMEMs (super-maximal exact matches) between reads and transcripts to identifying what the authors called “approximately consistent co-linear chains” as proxies for alignments of reads to transcripts. The authors then compared Salmon to kallisto writing that “We also compare with the recently released method of Kallisto which employs an idea similar in some respects to (but significantly different than) our lightweight-alignment algorithm and again find that Salmon tends to produce more accurate estimates in general, and in particular is better able [to] estimate abundances for multi-isoform genes.” In other words, in 2015 Patro et al. claimed that Salmon was “better” than kallisto. If so, why did the authors of Salmon later change the underlying method of their program to pseudoalignment from SMEM alignment?

Inspired by temporal ordering analysis of expression data and single-cell pseudotime analysis, I ran all the versions of kallisto and Salmon on ERR188140, and performed PCA on the resulting transcript abundance table to be able to visualize the progression of the programs over time. The figure below shows all the points with the exception of three: Sailfish 0.6.3, kallisto 0.42.0 and Salmon 0.32.0. I removed Sailfish 0.6.3 because it is such an outlier that it caused all the remaining points to cluster together on one side of the plot (the figure is below in the next section). In fairness I also removed one Salmon point (version 0.32.0) because it differed substantially from version 0.4.0 that was released a few weeks after 0.32.0 and fixed some bugs. Similarly, I removed kallisto 0.42.0, the first release of kallisto which had some bugs that were fixed 6 days later in version 0.42.1.


Evidently kallisto output has changed little since May 12, 2015. Although some small bugs were fixed and features added, the quantifications have been very similar. The quantifications have been stable because the algorithm has been the same.

On the other hand the Salmon trajectory shows a steady convergence towards kallisto. The result everyone is finding, namely that currently Salmon \simeq kallisto is revealed by the clustering of recent versions of Salmon near kallisto. However the first releases of Salmon are very different from kallisto. This is also clear from the heatmap/hierarchical clustering of  Sahraeian et al. in which Salmon-SMEM was included (Salmon used SMEMs until version 0.5.1, sometimes labeled fmd, until “quasi-mapping” became the default). A question: if Salmon ca. 2015 was truly better than kallisto then is Salmon ca. 2017 worse than Salmon ca. 2015?

Time vs. PC1

Convergence of Salmon and Sailfish to kallisto over the course of a year. The x-axis labels the time different versions of each program were released. The y-axis is PC1 from a PCA of transcript abundances of the programs.


The bioRxiv preprint server provides a feature by which a preprint can be linked to its final form in a journal. This feature is useful to readers of the bioRxiv, as final published papers are generally improved after preprint reader, reviewer, and editor comments have been addressed. Journal linking is also a mechanism for authors to time stamp their published work using the bioRxiv. However I’m sure the bioRxiv founders did not intend the linking feature to be abused as a “prestamping” mechanism, i.e. a way for authors to ex post facto receive a priority date for a published paper that had very little, or nothing, in common with the original preprint.

A comparison of the June 2015 preprint mentioning the Salmon program and the current Patro et al. paper reveals almost nothing in common. The initial method changed drastically in tandem with an update to the preprint on October 3, 2015 at which point the Salmon program was using “quasi mapping”, later published in Srivastava et al. 2016. Last year I met with Carl Kingsford (co-corresponding author of Patro et al. 2017) to discuss my concern that Salmon was changing from a method distinct from that of kallisto (SMEMs of May 2015) to one that was replicating all the innovations in kallisto, without properly disclosing that it was essentially a clone. Yet despite a promise that he would raise my concerns with the Salmon team, I never received a response.

At this point, the Salmon core algorithms have changed completely, the software program has changed completely, and the benchmarking has changed completely. The Salmon project of 2015 and the Salmon project of 2017 are two very different projects although the name of the program is the same. While some features have remained, for example the Salmon mode that processes transcriptome alignments (similar to eXpress) was present in 2015, and the approach to likelihood maximization has persisted, considering the programs the same is to descend into Theseus’ paradox.

Interestingly, Patro specifically asked to have the Salmon preprint linked to the journal:

The linking of preprints to journal articles is a feature that arXiv does not automate, and perhaps wisely so. If bioRxiv is to continue to automatically link preprints to journals it needs to focus not only on eliminating false negatives but also false positives, so that journal linking cannot be abused by authors seeking to use the preprint server to prestamp their work after the fact.

The fish always win?

The Sailfish program was the precursor of Salmon, and was published in Patro et al. 2014. At the time, a few students and postdocs in my group read the paper and then discussed it in our weekly journal club. It advocated a philosophy of “lightweight algorithms, which make frugal use of data, respect constant factors and effectively use concurrent hardware by working with small units of data where possible”. Indeed, two themes emerged in the journal club discussion:

1. Sailfish was much faster than other methods by virtue of being simpler.

2. The simplicity was to replace approximate alignment of reads with exact alignment of k-mers. When reads are shredded into their constituent k-mer “mini-reads”, the difficult read -> reference alignment problem in the presence of errors becomes an exact matching problem efficiently solvable with a hash table.

Despite the claim in the Sailfish abstract that “Sailfish provides quantification time…without loss of accuracy” and Figure 1 from the paper showing Sailfish to be more accurate than RSEM, we felt that the shredding of reads must lead to reduced accuracy, and we quickly checked and found that to be the case; this was later noted by others, e.g. Hensman et al. 2015, Lee et al. 2015).

After reflecting on the Sailfish paper and results, Nicolas Bray had the key idea of abandoning alignments as a requirement for RNA-Seq quantification, developed pseudoalignment, and later created kallisto (with Harold Pimentel and Páll Melsted).

I mention this because after the publication of kallisto, Sailfish started changing along with Salmon, and is now frequently discussed in the context of kallisto and Salmon as an equal. Indeed, the PCA plot above shows that (in its current form, v0.10.0) Sailfish is also nearly identical to kallisto. This is because with the release of Sailfish 0.7.0 in September 2015, Patro et al. started changing the Sailfish approach to use pseudoalignment in parallel with the conversion of Salmon to use pseudoalignment. To clarify the changes in Sailfish, I made the PCA plot below which shows where the original version of Sailfish that coincided with the publication of Patro et al. 2014 (version 0.6.3 March 2014) lies relative to the more recent versions and to Salmon:

pca_final_allIn other words, despite a series of confusing statements on the Sailfish GitHub page and an out-of-date description of the program on its homepage, Sailfish in its published form was substantially less accurate and slower than kallisto, and in its current form Sailfish is kallisto.

In retrospect, the results in Figure 1 of Patro et al. 2014 seem to be as problematic as the results in Figure 1 of Patro et al. 2017.  Apparently crafting computational experiments via biased simulations and benchmarks to paint a distorted picture of performance is a habit of Patro et al.

Addendum [August 5, 2017]

In the post I wrote that “The history of the Salmon program is accessible via the GitHub repository, which recorded changes to the code, and also via the bioRxiv preprint server where the authors published three versions of the Salmon preprint prior to its publication in Nature Methods” Here are the details of how these support the claims I make (tl;dr

Sailfish (current version) and Salmon implemented kallisto’s pseudoalignment algorithm using suffix arrays

First, both Sailfish and Salmon use RapMap (via `SACollector`) and call `mergeLeftRightHits()`:

The RapMap code for “quasi mapping” executes an algorithm identical to psuedoalignment, down to the detail of what happens to the k-mers in a single read:

First, `hitCollector()` calls `getSAHits_()`:

Here kmers are used hashed to SAintervals (Suffix Array intervals), that are then extended to see how far ahead to jump. This is the one of two key ideas in the kallisto paper, namely that not all the k-mers in a read need to be examined to pseudoalign the read. It’s much more than that though, it’s the actual exact same algorithm to the level of exactly the k-mers that are examined. kallisto performs this “skipping” using contig jumping with a different data structure (the transcriptome de Bruijn graph) but aside from data structure used what happens is identical:
makes a call to jumping and the code to compute MMP (skipping) is

There is a different detail in the Sailfish/Salmon code which is that when skipping forward the suffix array is checked for exact matching on the skipped sequence. kallisto does not have this requirement (although it could). On error-free data these will obviously be identical; on error prone data this may make Salmon/Sailfish a bit more conservative and kallisto a bit more robust to error. Also due to the structure of suffix arrays there is a possible difference in behavior when a transcript contains a repeated k-mer. These differences affect a tiny proportion of reads, as is evident from the result that kallisto and Salmon produce near identical results.

The second key idea in kallisto of intersecting equivalence classes for a read. This exact procedure is in:
which calls:

There was a choice we had to make in kallisto of how to handle information from paired end reads (does one require consistent pseudoalignment in both? Just one suffices to pseudoalign a read?)
The code for intersection between left and right reads making the identical choices as kallisto is:

In other words, stepping through what happens to the k-mers in a read shows that Sailfish/Salmon copied the algorithms of kallisto and implemented it with the only difference being a different data structure used to hash the kmers. This is why, when I did my run of Salmon vs. kallisto that led to this blog post I found that
kallisto pseudoaligned 69,780,930 reads
salmon 69,701,169.
That’s a difference of 79,000 out of ~70 million = 0.1%.

Two additional points:

  1.  Until the kallisto program and preprint was published Salmon used SMEMs. Only after kallisto does Salmon change to using kmer cached suffix array intervals.
  2. The kallisto preprint did not discuss outputting position as part of pseudoalignment because it was not central to the idea. It’s trivial to report pseudoalignment positions with either data structure and in fact both kallisto and Salmon do.

I want to make very clear here that I think there can be great value in implementing an algorithm with a different data structure. It’s a form of reproducibility that one can learn from: how to optimize, where performance gains can be made, etc. Unfortunately most funding agencies don’t give grants for projects whose goal is solely to reproduce someone else’s work. Neither do most journal publish papers that set out to do that. That’s too bad. If Patro et al. had presented their work honestly, and explained that they were implementing pseudoalignment with a different data structure to see if it’s better, I’d be a champion of their work. That’s not how they presented their work.

Salmon copied details in the quantification

The idea of using the EM algorithm for quantification with RNA-Seq goes back to Jiang and Wong, 2009, arguably even to Xing et al. 2006. I wrote up the details of the history in a review in 2011 that is on the arXiv. kallisto runs the EM algorithm on equivalence classes, an idea that originates with Nicolae et al. 2011 (or perhaps even Jiang and Wong 2009) but whose significance we understood from the Sailfish paper (Patro et al. 2014). Therefore the fact that Salmon (now) and kallisto both use the EM algorithm, in the same way, makes sense.

However Salmon did not use the EM algorithm before the kallisto preprint and program were published. It used an online variational Bayes algorithm instead. In the May 18, 2015 release of Salmon there is no mention of EM. Then, with the version 0.4 release date Salmon suddenly switches to the EM. In implementing the EM algorithm there are details that must be addressed, for example setting thresholds for when to terminate rounds of inference based on changes in the (log) likelihood (i.e. determine convergence).

For example, kallisto sets parameters
const double alpha_limit = 1e-7;
const double alpha_change_limit = 1e-2;
const double alpha_change = 1e-2;

in EMalgorithm.h
The link above shows that these kallisto parameters were set and have not changed since the release of kallisto
Also they were not always this way, see e.g. the version of April 6, 2015:
This is because one of the things we did is explore the effects of these thresholds, and understand how setting them affects performance. This can be seen also in a legacy redundancy, we have both alpha_change and alpha_change_limit which ended up being unnecessary because they are equal in the program and used on one line.

The first versions of Salmon post-kallisto switched to the EM, but didn’t even terminate it the same way as kallisto, adopting instead a maximum iteration of 1,000. See
from May 30, 2015.
This changed later first with the introduction of minAlpha (= kallisto’s alpha_limit)
and then alphaCheckCutoff (kallisto’s alpha_change_limit)

Here are the salmon thresholds:
double minAlpha = 1e-8;
double alphaCheckCutoff = 1e-2;
double cutoff = minAlpha;

Notice that they are identical except that minAlpha = 1e-8 and not kallisto’s alpha_limit = 1e-7. However in kallisto, from the outset, the way that alpha_limit has been used is:
if (alpha_[ec] < alpha_limit/10.0) {
alpha_[ec] = 0.0;

In other words, alpha_limit in kallisto is really 1e-8, and has been all along.

The copying of all the details of our program have consequences for performance. In the sample I ran kallisto performed 1216 EM rounds of EM vs. 1214 EM rounds in Salmon.

Sailfish (current version) copied our sequence specific bias method

One of the things we did in kallisto is implement a sequence specific bias correction along the lines of what was done previously in Roberts et al. 2011, and later in Roberts et al. 2013. Implementing sequence specific bias correction in kallisto required working things out from scratch because of the way equivalence classes were being used with the EM algorithm, and not reads. I worked this out together with Páll Melsted during conversations that lasted about a month in the Spring of 2015. We implemented it in the code although did not release details of how it worked with the initial preprint because it was an option and not default, and we thought we might want to still change it before submitting the journal paper.

Here Rob is stating that Salmon can account for biases that kallisto cannot:
This was a random forest bias correction method different from kallisto’s.

Shortly thereafter, here is the source code in Sailfish deprecating the Salmon bias correction and switching to kallisto’s method:

This is the update to effective length in kallisto:
Here is the Sailfish code:

Notice that there has been a literal copying down to the variable names:

The code written by the student of Rob was:

effLength *=alphaNormFactor/readNormFactor;

The code written by us is

efflen *= 0.5*biasAlphaNorm/biasDataNorm;

The code rewritten by Rob (editing that of the student):

effLength *= 0.5 * (txomeNormFactor / readNormFactor);

Note that since our bias correction method was not reported in our preprint, this had to have been copied directly from our codebase and was done so without any attribution.

I raised this specific issue with Carl Kingsford by email prior to our meeting in April 13 2016. We then discussed it in person. The conversation and email were prompted by a change to the Sailfish README on April 7, 2016 specifically accusing us of comparing kallisto to a “ **very old** version of Sailfish”:

What was stated is “The benchmarks in the kallisto paper *are* made against a very old version of Sailfish” not “were made against”. By the time that was written, it might well have been true. But kallisto was published in May 2015, it benchmarked with the Sailfish program described in Patro et al. 2014, and by 2016 Sailfish had changed completely implementing the pseudoalignment of kallisto.

Token attribution

Another aspect of an RNA-Seq quantification program is effective length estimation. There is an attribution to kallisto in the Sailfish code now explaining that this is from kallisto:
“Computes (and returns) new effective lengths for the transcripts based on the current abundance estimates (alphas) and the current effective lengths (effLensIn). This approach is based on the one taken in Kallisto
This is from January 23rd, 2016, almost 9 months after kallisto was released, and 3 months before the Sailfish README accused us of not testing the latest version of Sailfish in May 2015.

The attribution for effective lengths is also in the Salmon code, from 6 months later June 2016:

There is also an acknowledgement in the Salmon code that a machine floating point tolerance we use
was copied.
The acknowledgment in Salmon is here
This is the same file where the kallisto thresholds for the EM were copied to.

So after copying our entire method, our core algorithm, many of our ideas, specific parameters, and numerous features… really just about everything that goes into an RNA-Seq quantification project, there is an acknowledgment that our machine tolerance threshold was “intelligently chosen”.


The hierarchical classification of nature initiated by Carl Linnaeus today consists of eight major “ranks”, namely species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom and domain:


In the microbial world it makes sense to refine the standard taxonomy by subdividing species into strains. An important reason to do so is that bacterial taxonomy must reflect not only phylogeny but also pathogenicity, and small differences in genomes can translate to large pathogenic differences. This has implications for metagenomic analyses of microbial communities: for many biomedical applications it is desirable to characterize individuals strains.

Metagenomics has its roots in culture-independent retrieval and sequencing of 16S rRNA genes, and while variations in 16S can sometimes distinguish between strains, a single gene is not always sufficient. This limitation of 16S can be overcome with whole genome shotgun sequencing of microbial communities, an approach to metagenomics that became popular in the early 2000s and  that opened the door to higher resolution characterization of communities. In 2005 Kevin Chen and I wrote a review on the bioinformatics challenges that would have to be overcome to walk through the door. One of the things we did was to emphasize “problems and their connections to other areas of bioinformatics, such as… gene expression analysis”, and throughout the past decade I’ve always hoped for deeper connections to be established between metagenomics and gene expression bioinformatics. I’ve noticed interesting connections pop up from time to time (e.g. Paulson et al. 2013)  and have occasionally entertained the thought with my students and collaborators, especially as work in my group became more focused on RNA-Seq since the development of Cufflinks in 2008.

However connection modern transcriptome analysis methodology, specifically bioinformatics of RNA-Seq to metagenomics has been difficult to do until recently. One major reason is that until just a few years ago, there was no reference genome database for metagenomics analogous to the reference annotation databases available for use in transcriptomics. Another way to put this is that metagenomics has, until recently, been “de novo” bioinformatics. By this I mean that the analysis of communities from whole genome shotgun data had to largely proceed via de novo analyses of the data (e.g. de novo assembly of genomes), “binning” of reads according to sequence characteristics or hits to gene databases was required because it was impossible to compare sequences to references genomes. While de novo methods have also been developed for RNA-Seq, the scale of transcriptome analysis is much smaller than that of most metagenomic analyses, and as has been well documented, de novo transcriptomics is already very difficult (e.g. Amin et al. 2014).

The de novo state of metagenomics has changed in recent years, as (relatively) low-cost sequencing has been a boon for microbial genomics. The graph below, extracted from NCBI and published in a recent review, shows that in just the past few years thousands of bacterial genomes have been sequences, enabling, for the first time, reference based metagenomics:


This observation is reflected in the recent development of many methods for a variety of metagenomic applications that take advantage of reference genome databases.  Specifically, the problem of read assignment, which is fundamental for abundance estimation, has benefited from the possibility of metagenomic read alignment to reference databases.

The figure below, reproduced from the preprint “An evaluation of the accuracy and speed of metagenome analysis tools” by Stinus Lindgreen, Karen L. Adair and Paul Gardner, bioRxiv May 15, 2015 shows a benchmark of the accuracy and runtime of 14 programs developed for metagenomic read assignment for whole genome shotgun data:


The problem these methods are solving is really similar to the problem of read assignment in RNA-Seq. In RNA-Seq, instead of originating from strains, reads originate from transcripts. Just as strains are present in different abundances in a community, so are RNA transcripts in a cell (or in bulk). The analogy of taxonomy in metagenomics, i.e. the grouping of strains into species, genus etc. is also present in RNA-Seq, where transcripts are grouped into genes. The fragment (or read) assignment problem in RNA-Seq is closely related to the quantification problem in RNA-Seq and is a problem that has been thoroughly researched and for which many algorithms have been developed. I discussed the importance of the fragment assignment problem for RNA-Seq in my 2013 Genome Informatics Keynote.

In response to the development of reference-based bioinformatics possibilities for metagenomics, about three years ago my student Lorian Schaeffer started looking at the suitability of RNA-Seq tools for metagenomic read assignment. Although the metagenomic and RNA-Seq assignment problems are conceptually similar and methodologically related, there are various technical issues involved in applying RNA-Seq tools in the metagenomic setting (e.g. the need to carefully account for taxonomy in the metagenomics setting). After developing the computational infrastructure to benchmark RNA-Seq programs in the metagenomic setting, she proceeded to evaluate the accuracy of eXpress, a streaming algorithm for RNA-Seq quantification. Although the quantification of eXpress was specifically designed to be suitable for large numbers of reads, the program requires read alignments to a reference transcriptome (or in Lorian’s experiments a genome) database. In the metagenomic setting realistic databases are huge, and she found that it took days just to map the reads. Nevertheless, her initial benchmarks revealed that eXpress was significantly more accurate than the available metagenomic read assignment tools of the time.

When Kraken (Wood and Salzberg 2014), and later CLARK (Ounit et al. 2015) were published in 2014 and 2015 respectively, we took note because by circumventing the alignment step they dramatically altered the tractability of metagenomic read assignment. In parallel, in my group, Nicolas Bray and later Páll Melsted and Harold Pimentel were developing what is now kallisto (Bray et al. 2015). Like Kraken, kallisto avoided the need for aligning reads, but with the introduction of the concept of pseudoalignment, allowed for accurate read assignments based on joint analysis of exact k-mer matches. What we showed earlier this year is that unlike naïve k-mer based approaches to quantification, kallisto is as accurate as eXpress and other read alignment based quantification tools, and this observation led Lorian to immediately proceed to benchmark it on metagenomic data. The result of her work was just posted as a preprint:

Lorian Schaeffer, Harold Pimentel, Nicolas Bray, Páll Melsted and Lior Pachter, Pseudoalignment for metagenomic read assignment, arXiv 1510.07371, 2015.

With this paper we demonstrate a “technology transfer” from RNA-Seq bioinformatics to metagenomics, one that achieves dramatic improvements in read assignment accuracy in the metagenomics setting. The main result of her work is Table 1 in our preprint:


Using a published simulated Illumina dataset from Mende et al. 2012 (based on 100 genomes and containing 53.33 million reads), and augmenting it with another 2,308 genomes for the purpose of testing, she shows that kallisto significantly outperforms the best quantification methods (as benchmarked by Lindgreen et al., see figure above). “Significant” here refers to what I think is fair to characterize as an extraordinary improvement: at the genus level, a level that programs such as CLARK have been optimized for, kallisto’s RRMSE (relative root mean squared error)  is 0.13 compared to 17.05 for Kraken and 18.58 for CLARK. The improvement is based on two ideas: first, the results show that the model based approach for read assignment, the concept that underlies GASiC and eXpress, outperforms direct taxonomic read assignment as implemented by MEGAN and Kraken and CLARK (in the latter approach reads are aligned to the lowest rank to which they align unambigously). Second, pseudoalignment is not just faster than traditional alignment but also accurate.

The upshot: the accuracy and efficiency of kallisto make strain level analysis of metagenomes possible. In fact kallisto is more accurate at the strain level than other programs are at the genus level. Just as we have been advocating for transcript level analysis from RNA-Seq data, we believe that strain level analysis should become commonplace in metagenomics.

In digging deeply into the bioinformatics of metagenomics bioinformatics we noticed a few other areas that could benefit from RNA-Seq technology transfer. For example, the standard of RNA-Seq methods benchmarking appears to be higher than in metagenomics. Both the Kraken and CLARK papers benchmarked their programs on simulations with 10 genomes (the number ten is not a typo). CLARK did test on one dataset with 20 genomes, although using only 10,000 reads. To be fair to the authors of those papers, their standards were much higher than others in the field. The paper

Yu-Wei Wu and Yuzhen Ye, A novel abundance-based algorithm for binning metagenomic sequences using l-tuples, Journal of Computational Biology 2011.

benchmarked their method on simulations of reads from 2 (two!!) organisms. Biologists frequently complain that simulations of bioinformaticians are completely non-informative and unfortunately these cases provide fodder for such prejudice. Having said that, the RNA-Seq community also has much to learn from the metagenomics community. The previously mentioned paper by Paulson et al. 2013 addresses missing data in a way that should translate directly to missing data in single-cell RNA-Seq (the paper also makes performance comparisons with their comparative metagenomics approach to the RNA-Seq programs DESeq and edgeR) . One paper (McDavid et al. 2012) does take a look at modeling single-cell data with zero inflated distributions but I think this is a good example where metagenomics is ahead of RNA-Seq. Our immediate plans are to develop the kallisto application to metagenomics to include the ability to perform metagenome comparisons using sleuth. Conversely, inspired by the taxonomy hierarchy fundamental to metagenomics we’re going to explore RNA-Seq quantification with groups of transcripts that go beyond just genes.

Horizontal transfer is good.

[Update July 15, 2016: A preprint describing sleuth is available on BioRxiv]

Today my student Harold Pimentel released the beta version of his new RNA-Seq analysis method and software program called sleuth. A sleuth for RNA-Seq begins with the quantification of samples with kallisto, and together a sleuth of kallistos can be used to analyze RNA-Seq data rigorously and rapidly.


Why do we need another RNA-Seq program?

A major challenge in transcriptome analysis is to determine the transcripts that have changed in their abundance across conditions.  This challenge is not entirely trivial because the stochasticity in transcription both within and between cells (biological variation), and the randomness in the experiment (RNA-Seq) that is used to determine transcript abundances (technical variation), make it difficult to determine what constitutes “significant” change. 

Technical variation can be assessed by performing technical replicates of experiments. In the case of RNA-Seq, this can be done by repeatedly sequencing from one cDNA library. Such replicates are fundamentally distinct from biological replicates designed to assess biological variation. Biological replicates are performed by sequencing different cDNA libraries that have been constructed from repeated biological experiments performed under the same (or in practice near-same) conditions. Because biological replicates require sequencing different cDNA libraries, a key point is that biological replicates include technical variation.

In the early days of RNA-Seq a few papers (e.g. Marioni et al. 2008, Bullard et al. 2010) described analyses of technical replicates and concluded that they were not really needed in practice, because technical variation could be predicted statistically from the properties of the Poisson distribution. The point is that in an idealized RNA-Seq experiment counts of reads are multinomial (according to abundances of the transcripts they originate from), and therefore approximately Poisson distributed. Their variance is therefore approximately equal to the mean, so that it is possible to predict the variance in counts across technical replicates based on the abundance of the transcripts they originate from. There is, however, one important subtlety here: “counts of reads” as used above refers to the number of reads originating from a transcript, but in many cases, especially in higher eukaryotes, reads are frequently ambiguous as to their transcript of origin because of the presence of multi-isoform genes and genes families. In other words, transcript counts cannot be precisely measured. However, the statement about the Poisson distribution of counts in technical replicates remain true when considering counts of reads by genomic features because then reads are no longer ambiguous. 

This is why, in so-called “count-based methods” for RNA-Seq analysis, there is an analysis only at the gene level. Programs such as DESeq/DESeq2, edgeR and a literally dozens of other count-based methods first require counting reads across genome features using tools such as HTSeq or featureCounts. By utilizing read counts to genomic features, technical replicates are unnecessary in lieu of the statistical assumption that they would reveal Poisson distributed data, and instead the methods focus on modeling biological variation. The issue of how to model biological variation is non-trivial because typically very few biological replicates are performed in experiments. Thus, there is a need for pooling information across genes to obtain reliable variance estimates via a statistical process called shrinkage. How and what to shrink is a matter of extensive debate among statisticians engaged in the development of count-based RNA-Seq methods, but one theme that has emerged is that shrinkage approaches can be compatible with general and generalized linear models, thus allowing for the analysis of complex experimental designs.

Despite these accomplishments,  count-based methods for RNA-Seq have two major (related) drawbacks: first, the use of counts to gene features prevents inference about the transcription of isoforms, and therefore with most count-based methods it is impossible to identify splicing switches and other isoform changes between conditions. Some methods have tried to address this issue by restricting genomic features to specific exons or splice junctions (e.g. DEXSeq) but this requires throwing out a lot of data, thereby reducing power for identifying statistically significant differences between conditions. Second, because of the fact that in general \frac{a}{b} + \frac{c}{d} \neq \frac{a+b}{c+d} it is mathematically incorrect to estimate gene abundances by adding up counts to their genomic region. One consequence of this, is that it is not possible to accurately measure fold change between conditions by using counts to gene features. In other words, count-based methods are problematic even at the gene-level and it is necessary to estimate transcript-level counts.

While reads might be ambiguous as to exactly which transcripts they originated from, it is possible to statistically infer an estimate of the number of reads from each transcript in an experiment. This kind of quantification has its origin in papers of Jiang and Wong, 2009 and Trapnell et al. 2010. However the process of estimating transcript-level counts introduces technical variation. That is to say, if multiple technical replicates were performed on a cDNA library and then transcript-level counts were to be inferred, those inferred counts would no longer be Poisson distributed. Thus, there appears to be a need for performing technical replicates after all. Furthermore, it becomes unclear how to work within the shrinkage frameworks of count-based methods. 

There have been a handful of attempts to develop methods that combine the uncertainty of count estimates at the transcript level with biological variation in the assessment of statistically significant changes in transcript abundances between conditions. For example, the Cuffdiff2 method generalizes DESeq while the bitSeq method relies on a Bayesian framework to simultaneously quantify abundances at the transcript level while modeling biological variability. Despite showing improved performance over count-based methods, they also have significant shortcomings. For example the methods are not as flexible as those of general(ized) linear models, and bitSeq is slow partly because it requires MCMC sampling.

Thus, despite intensive research on both statistical and computational methods for RNA-Seq over the past years, there has been no solution for analysis of experiments that allows biologists to take full advantage of the power and resolution of RNA-Seq.

The sleuth model

The main contribution of sleuth is an intuitive yet powerful model for RNA-Seq that bridges the gap between count-based methods and quantification algorithms in a way that fully exploits the advantages of both.

To understand sleuth, it is helpful to start with the general linear model:

Y_t = X_t\beta_t + \epsilon_t.

Here the subscript t refers to a specific transcript, Y_t is a vector describing transcript abundances (of length equal to the number of samples), X_t is a design matrix (of size number of samples x number of confounders), \beta_t is a parameter vector (of size the number of confounders) and \epsilon_t is a noise vector (of size the number of samples). In this model the abundances Y_t are normally distributed. For the purposes of RNA-Seq data, the Y_t may be assumed to be the logarithm of the counts (or normalized counts per million) from a transcript, and indeed this is the approach taken in a number of approaches to RNA-Seq modeling, e.g. in limma-voom. A common alternative to the general linear model is the generalized linear model, which postulates that some function of Y_t has a distribution with mean equal to g^{-1}(X_t \beta_t) where g is a link function, such as log, thereby allowing for distributions other than the normal to be used for the observed data. In the RNA-Seq context, where the negative binomial distribution may make sense because it is frequently a good distribution for modeling count data, the generalized model is sometimes preferred to the standard general model (e.g. by DESeq2). There is much debate about which approach is “better”.

In the sleuth model the Y_t in the general linear model are modeled as unobserved. They can be thought of us the unobserved logarithms of true counts for each transcript across samples and are assumed to be normally distributed. The observed data D_t is the logarithm of estimated counts for each transcript across samples, and is modeled as

D_t = Y_t + \zeta_t

where the \zeta_t vector parameterizes a perturbation to the unobserved Y_t. This can be understood as the technical noise due to the random sequencing of fragments from a cDNA library and the uncertainty introduced in estimating transcript counts.

The sleuth model incorporates the assumptions that the response error is additive, i.e. if  the variance of transcript in sample is V(D_{t,i}) then V(D_{t,i}) = \sigma^2_t + \tau^2_t where the variance V(\epsilon_{t,i}|y_{t,i}) = \sigma^2_t and the variance V(\zeta_{t,i}|y_{t,i}) = \tau^2_t. Intuitively, sleuth teases apart the two sources of variance by examining both technical and biological replicates, and in doing so directly estimates “true” biological variance, i.e. the variance in biological replicates that is not technical.  In lieu of actual technical replicates, sleuth takes advantage of the bootstraps of kallisto which serve as accurate proxies.

In a test of sleuth on data simulated according to the DESeq2 model we found that sleuth significantly outperforms other methods:


In this simulation transcript counts were simulated according to a negative binomial distribution, following closely the protocol of the DESeq2 paper simulations. Reference parameters for the simulation were first estimated by running DESeq2 on a the female Finnish population from the GEUVADIS dataset (59 individuals). In the simulation above size factors were set to be equal in accordance with typical experiments being performed, but we also tested sleuth with size factors drawn at random with geometric mean of 1 in accordance with the DESeq2 protocol (yielding factors of 1, 0.33, 3, 3, 0.33 and 1) and sleuth still outperformed other methods.

There are many details in the implementation of sleuth that are crucial to its performance, e.g. the approach to shrinkage to estimate the biological variance \sigma^2_t. A forthcoming preprint, together with Nicolas Bray and Páll Melsted that also contributed to the project along with myself, will provide the details.

Exploratory data analysis with sleuth

One of the design goals of sleuth was to create a simple and efficient workflow in line with the principles of kallisto. Working with the Shiny web application framework we have designed an html interface that allows users to interact with sleuth plots allowing for real time exploratory data analysis.

The sleuth Shiny interface is much more than just a GUI for making plots of kallisto processed data. First, it allows for the exploration of the sleuth fitted models; users can explore the technical variation of each transcript, see where statistically significant differential transcripts appear in relationship to others in terms of abundance and variance and much more. Particularly useful are interactive features in the plots. For example, when examining an MA plot, users can highlight a region of points (dynamically created box in upper panel) and see their variance breakdown of the transcripts the points correspond to, and the list of the transcripts in a table below:



The web interface contains diagnostics, summaries of the data, “maps” showing low-dimensional representations of the data and tools for analysis of differential transcripts. The interactivity via Shiny can be especially useful for diagnostics; for example, in the diagnostics users can examine scatterplots of any two samples, and then select outliers to examine their variance, including the breakdown of technical variance. This allows for a determination of whether outliers represent high variance transcripts, or specific samples gone awry. Users can of course make figures showing transcript abundances in all samples, including boxplots displaying the extent of technical variation. Interested in the differential transcribed isoform ENST00000349155 of the TBX3 gene shown in Figure 5d of the Cuffdiff2 paper? It’s trivial to examine using the transcript viewer:


One can immediately see visually that differences between conditions completely dominate both the technical and biological variation within conditions. The sleuth q-value for this transcript is 3*10^(-68).

Among the maps, users can examine PCA projections onto any pair of components, allowing for rapid exploration of the structure of the data. Thus, with kallisto and sleuth raw RNA-Seq reads can be converted into a complete analysis in a matter of minutes. Experts will be able to generate plots and analyses in R using the sleuth library as they would with any R package. We plan numerous improvements and developments to the sleuth interface in the near future that will further facilitate data exploration; in the meantime we welcome feedback from users.

How to try out sleuth

Since sleuth requires the bootstraps and quantifications output by kallisto we recommend starting by running kallisto on your samples. The kallisto program is very fast, processing 30 million reads on a laptop in a matter of minutes. You will have to run kallisto with bootstraps- we have been using 100 bootstraps per sample but it should be possible to work with many fewer. We have yet to fully investigate the minimum number of bootstraps required for sleuth to be accurate.

To learn how to use kallisto start here. If you have already run kallisto you can proceed to the tutorial for sleuth. If you’re really eager to see sleuth without first learning kallisto, you can skip ahead and try it out using pre-computed kallisto runs of the Cuffdiff2 data- the tutorial explains where to obtain the data for trying out sleuth.

For questions, suggestions or help see the program websites and also the kallisto-sleuth user group. We hope you enjoy the tools!

Today I posted the preprint N. Bray, H. Pimentel, P. Melsted and L. Pachter, Near-optimal RNA-Seq quantification with kallisto to the arXiv. It describes the RNA-Seq quantification program kallisto. [Update April 5, 2016: a revised version of the preprint has been published: Nicolas L. Bray, Harold Pimentel, Páll Melsted and Lior Pachter, Near-optimal probabilistic RNA-Seq quantification, Nature Biotechnology (2016), doi:10.1038/nbt.3519 published online April 4, 2016.]

The project began in August 2013 when I wrote my second blog post, about another arXiv preprint describing a program for RNA-Seq quantification called Sailfish (now a published paper). At the time, a few students and postdocs in my group read the paper and then discussed it in our weekly journal club. It advocated a philosophy of “lightweight algorithms, which make frugal use of data, respect constant factors and effectively use concurrent hardware by working with small units of data where possible”. Indeed, two themes emerged in the journal club discussion:

1. Sailfish was much faster than other methods by virtue of being simpler.

2. The simplicity was to replace approximate alignment of reads with exact alignment of k-mers. When reads are shredded into their constituent k-mer “mini-reads”, the difficult read -> reference alignment problem in the presence of errors becomes an exact matching problem efficiently solvable with a hash table.

We felt that the shredding of reads must lead to reduced accuracy, and we quickly checked and found that to be the case. In fact, in our simulations, we saw that Sailfish significantly underperformed methods such as RSEM. However the fact that simpler was so much faster led us to wonder whether the prevailing wisdom of seeking to improve RNA-Seq analysis by looking at increasingly complex models was ill-founded. Perhaps simpler could be not only fast, but also accurate, or at least close enough to best-in-class for practical purposes.

After thinking about the problem carefully, my (now former) student Nicolas Bray realized that the key is to abandon the idea that alignments are necessary for RNA-Seq quantification. Even Sailfish makes use of alignments (of k-mers rather than reads, but alignments nonetheless). In fact, thinking about all the tools available, Nick realized that every RNA-Seq analysis program was being developed in the context of a “pipeline” of first aligning reads or parts of them to a reference genome or transcriptome. Nick had the insight to ask: what can be gained if we let go of that paradigm?

By April 2014 we had formalized the notion of “pseudoalignment” and Nick had written, in Python, a prototype of a pseudoaligner. He called the program kallisto. The basic idea was to determine, for each read, not where in each transcript it aligns, but rather which transcripts it is compatible with. That is asking for a lot less, and as it turns out, pseudoalignment can be much faster than alignment. At the same time, the information in pseudoalignments is enough to quantify abundances using a simple model for RNA-Seq, a point made in the isoEM paper, and an idea that Sailfish made use of as well.

Just how fast is pseudoalignment? In January of this year Páll Melsted from the University of Iceland came to visit my group for a semester sabbatical. Páll had experience in exactly the kinds of computer science we needed to optimize kallisto; he has written about efficient k-mer counting using the bloom filter and de Bruijn graph construction. He translated the Python kallisto to C++, incorporating numerous clever optimizations and a few new ideas along the way. His work was done in collaboration with my student Harold Pimentel, Nick (now a postdoc with Jacob Corn and Jennifer Doudna at the Innovative Genomics Initiative) and myself.

The screenshot below shows kallisto being used on my 2012 iMac desktop to build an index of the human transcriptome (5 min 8 sec), and then quantify 78.6 million GEUVADIS human RNA-Seq reads (14 min). When we first saw these results we thought they were simply too good to be true. Let me repeat: The quantification of 78.6 million reads takes 14 minutes on a standard desktop using a single CPU core. In some tests we’ve gotten even faster running times, up to 15 million reads quantified per minute.


The results in our paper indicate that kallisto is not just fast, but also very accurate. This is not surprising: underlying RNA-Seq analysis are the alignments, and although kallisto is pseudoaligning instead, it is almost always only the compatibility information that is used in actual applications. As we show in our paper, from the point of view of compatibility, the pseudoalignments and alignments are almost the same.

Although accuracy is a primary concern with analysis, we realized in the course of working on kallisto that speed is also paramount, and not just as a  matter of convenience. The speed of kallisto has three major implications:

1. It allows for efficient bootstrapping. All that is required for the bootstrap are reruns of the EM algorithm, and those are particularly fast within kallisto. The result is that we can accurately estimate the uncertainty in abundance estimates. One of my favorite figures from our paper, made by Harold, is this one:


It is based on an analysis of 40 samples of 30 million reads subsampled from 275 million rat RNA-Seq reads. Each dot corresponds to a transcript and is colored by its abundance. The x-axis shows the variance estimated from kallisto bootstraps on a single subsample while the y-axis shows the variance computed from the different subsamples of the data. We see that the bootstrap recapitulates the empirical variance. This result is non-trivial: the standard dogma, that the technical variance in RNA-Seq is “Poisson” (i.e. proportional to the mean) is false, as shown in Supplementary Figure 3 of our paper (the correlation becomes 0.64). Thus, the bootstrap will be invaluable when incorporated in downstream application and we are already working on some ideas.

2. It is not just the kallisto quantification that is fast; the index building, and even compilation of the program are also easy and quick. The implication for biologists is that RNA-Seq analysis now becomes interactive. Instead of “freezing” an analysis that might take weeks or even months, data can be explored dynamically, e.g. easily quantified against different transcriptomes, or re-quantified as transcriptomes are updated. The ability to analyze data locally instead of requiring cloud computation means that analysis is portable, and also easily secure.

3. We have found the fast turnaround of analysis helpful in improving the program itself. With kallisto we can quickly check the effect of changes in the algorithms. This allows for much faster debugging of problems, and also better optimization. It also allows us to release improvements knowing that users will be able to test them without resorting to a major computation that might take months. For this reason we’re not afraid to say that some improvements to kallisto will be coming soon.

As someone who has worked on RNA-Seq since the time of 32bp reads, I have to say that kallisto has personally been extremely liberating. It offers freedom from the bioinformatics core facility, freedom from the cloud, freedom from the multi-core server, and in my case freedom from my graduate students– for the first time in years I’m analyzing tons of data on my own; because of the simplicity and speed I find I have the time for it. Enjoy!


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