A Semi-Supervised Predictive Model to Link Regulatory Regions to Their Target Genes

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Hafez, Dina Mohamed


Ohler, Uwe

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Next generation sequencing technologies have provided us with a wealth of data profiling a diverse range of biological processes. In an effort to better understand the process of gene regulation, two predictive machine learning models specifically tailored for analyzing gene transcription and polyadenylation are presented.

Transcriptional enhancers are specific DNA sequences that act as ``information integration hubs" to confer regulatory requirements on a given cell. These non-coding DNA sequences can regulate genes from long distances, or across chromosomes, and their relationships with their target genes are not limited to one-to-one. With thousands of putative enhancers and less than 14,000 protein-coding genes, detecting enhancer-gene pairs becomes a very complex machine learning and data analysis challenge.

In order to predict these specific-sequences and link them to genes they regulate, we developed McEnhancer. Using DNAseI sensitivity data and annotated in-situ hybridization gene expression clusters, McEnhancer builds interpolated Markov models to learn enriched sequence content of known enhancer-gene pairs and predicts unknown interactions in a semi-supervised learning algorithm. Classification of predicted relationships were 73-98% accurate for gene sets with varying levels of initial known examples. Predicted interactions showed a great overlap when compared to Hi-C identified interactions. Enrichment of known functionally related TF binding motifs, enhancer-associated histone modification marks, along with corresponding developmental time point was highly evident.

On the other hand, pre-mRNA cleavage and polyadenylation is an essential step for 3'-end maturation and subsequent stability and degradation of mRNAs. This process is highly controlled by cis-regulatory elements surrounding the cleavage site (polyA site), which are frequently constrained by sequence content and position. More than 50\% of human transcripts have multiple functional polyA sites, and the specific use of alternative polyA sites (APA) results in isoforms with variable 3'-UTRs, thus potentially affecting gene regulation. Elucidating the regulatory mechanisms underlying differential polyA preferences in multiple cell types has been hindered by the lack of appropriate tests for determining APAs with significant differences across multiple libraries.

We specified a linear effects regression model to identify tissue-specific biases indicating regulated APA; the significance of differences between tissue types was assessed by an appropriately designed permutation test. This combination allowed us to identify highly specific subsets of APA events in the individual tissue types. Predictive kernel-based SVM models successfully classified constitutive polyA sites from a biologically relevant background (auROC = 99.6%), as well as tissue-specific regulated sets from each other. The main cis-regulatory elements described for polyadenylation were found to be a strong, and highly informative, hallmark for constitutive sites only. Tissue-specific regulated sites were found to contain other regulatory motifs, with the canonical PAS signal being nearly absent at brain-specific sites. We applied this model on SRp20 data, an RNA binding protein that might be involved in oncogene activation and obtained interesting insights.

Together, these two models contribute to the understanding of enhancers and the key role they play in regulating tissue-specific expression patterns during development, as well as provide a better understanding of the diversity of post-transcriptional gene regulation in multiple tissue types.





Hafez, Dina Mohamed (2015). A Semi-Supervised Predictive Model to Link Regulatory Regions to Their Target Genes. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/11314.


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