Standard controls and best practice guidelines advance acceptance of data from research, preclinical and clinical laboratories by providing a means for evaluating data quality. The External RNA Controls Consortium (ERCC) is developing commonly agreed-upon and tested controls for use in expression assays, a true industry-wide standard control.
With the emergence of RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) technologies, RNA-based biomolecules hold expanded promise for their diagnostic, prognostic and therapeutic applicability in various diseases, including cancers and infectious diseases. Detection of gene fusions and differential expression of known disease-causing transcripts by RNA-seq represent some of the most immediate opportunities. However, it is the diversity of RNA species detected through RNA-seq that holds new promise for the multi-faceted clinical applicability of RNA-based measures, including the potential of extracellular RNAs as non-invasive diagnostic indicators of disease. Ongoing efforts towards the establishment of benchmark standards, assay optimization for clinical conditions and demonstration of assay reproducibility are required to expand the clinical utility of RNA-seq.
We developed a massive-scale RNA sequencing protocol, short quantitative random RNA libraries or SQRL, to survey the complexity, dynamics and sequence content of transcriptomes in a near-complete fashion. This method generates directional, random-primed, linear cDNA libraries that are optimized for next-generation short-tag sequencing. We surveyed the poly(A)+ transcriptomes of undifferentiated mouse embryonic stem cells (ESCs) and embryoid bodies (EBs) at an unprecedented depth (10 Gb), using the Applied Biosystems SOLiD technology. These libraries capture the genomic landscape of expression, state-specific expression, single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), the transcriptional activity of repeat elements, and both known and new alternative splicing events. We investigated the impact of transcriptional complexity on current models of key signaling pathways controlling ESC pluripotency and differentiation, highlighting how SQRL can be used to characterize transcriptome content and dynamics in a quantitative and reproducible manner, and suggesting that our understanding of transcriptional complexity is far from complete.
The External RNA Control Consortium (ERCC) is an ad-hoc group with approximately 70 members from private, public, and academic organizations. The group is developing a set of external RNA control transcripts that can be used to assess technical performance in gene expression assays. The ERCC is now initiating the Testing Phase of the project, during which candidate external RNA controls will be evaluated in both microarray and QRT-PCR gene expression platforms. This document describes the proposed experiments and informatics process that will be followed to test and qualify individual controls. The ERCC is distributing this description of the proposed testing process in an effort to gain consensus and to encourage feedback from the scientific community. On October 4–5, 2005, the ERCC met to further review the document, clarify ambiguities, and plan next steps. A summary of this meeting and changes to the test plan are provided as an appendix to this manuscript.
NIST is reconvening the External RNA Controls Consortium (ERCC), a public, private, and academic research collaboration to develop external RNA controls for gene expression assays (71 FR 10012 and NIST Standard Reference Material 2374, available at ERCC products are being extended to accommodate recently emerged applications. This is a call for (1) participation in ERCC activities and (2) collection of nucleic acid sequences to extend the ERCC library.
The ERCC library is a tool for generating RNA controls; any party may disseminate such controls. Intellectual property rights may be maintained on submitted sequences, but submitted sequences must be declared to be free for use as RNA controls.
RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) can be used to assemble spliced isoforms, quantify expressed genes and provide a global profile of the transcriptome. However, the size and diversity of the transcriptome, the wide dynamic range in gene expression and inherent technical biases confound RNA-seq analysis. We have developed a set of spike-in RNA standards, termed ‘sequins’ (sequencing spike-ins), that represent full-length spliced mRNA isoforms. Sequins have an entirely artificial sequence with no homology to natural reference genomes, but they align to gene loci encoded on an artificial in silico chromosome. The combination of multiple sequins across a range of concentrations emulates alternative splicing and differential gene expression, and it provides scaling factors for normalization between samples. We demonstrate the use of sequins in RNA-seq experiments to measure sample-specific biases and determine the limits of reliable transcript assembly and quantification in accompanying human RNA samples. In addition, we have designed a complementary set of sequins that represent fusion genes arising from rearrangements of the in silico chromosome to aid in cancer diagnosis. RNA sequins provide a qualitative and quantitative reference with which to navigate the complexity of the human transcriptome.
High-throughput sequencing of cDNA (RNA-seq) is a widely deployed transcriptome profiling and annotation technique, but questions about the performance of different protocols and platforms remain. We used a newly developed pool of 96 synthetic RNAs with various lengths, and GC content covering a 220 concentration range as spike-in controls to measure sensitivity, accuracy, and biases in RNA-seq experiments as well as to derive standard curves for quantifying the abundance of transcripts. We observed linearity between read density and RNA input over the entire detection range and excellent agreement between replicates, but we observed significantly larger imprecision than expected under pure Poisson sampling errors. We use the control RNAs to directly measure reproducible protocol-dependent biases due to GC content and transcript length as well as stereotypic heterogeneity in coverage across transcripts correlated with position relative to RNA termini and priming sequence bias. These effects lead to biased quantification for short transcripts and individual exons, which is a serious problem for measurements of isoform abundances, but that can partially be corrected using appropriate models of bias. By using the control RNAs, we derive limits for the discovery and detection of rare transcripts in RNA-seq experiments. By using data collected as part of the model organism and human Encyclopedia of DNA Elements projects (ENCODE and modENCODE), we demonstrate that external RNA controls are a useful resource for evaluating sensitivity and accuracy of RNA-seq experiments for transcriptome discovery and quantification. These quality metrics facilitate comparable analysis across different samples, protocols, and platforms.
One of the key applications of next-generation sequencing (NGS) technologies is RNA-Seq for transcriptome genome-wide analysis. Although multiple studies have evaluated and benchmarked RNA-Seq tools dedicated to gene level analysis, few studies have assessed their effectiveness on the transcript-isoform level. Alternative splicing is a naturally occurring phenomenon in eukaryotes, significantly increasing the biodiversity of proteins that can be encoded by the genome. The aim of this study was to assess and compare the ability of the bioinformatics approaches and tools to assemble, quantify and detect differentially expressed transcripts using RNA-Seq data, in a controlled experiment. To this end, in vitro synthesized mouse spike-in control transcripts were added to the total RNA of differentiating mouse embryonic bodies, and their expression patterns were measured. This novel approach was used to assess the accuracy of the tools, as established by comparing the observed results versus the results expected of the mouse controlled spiked-in transcripts. We found that detection of differential expression at the gene level is adequate, yet on the transcript-isoform level, all tools tested lacked accuracy and precision.
After mapping, RNA-Seq data can be summarized by a sequence of read counts commonly modeled as Poisson variables with constant rates along each transcript, which actually fit data poorly. We suggest using variable rates for different positions, and propose two models to predict these rates based on local sequences. These models explain more than 50% of the variations and can lead to improved estimates of gene and isoform expressions for both Illumina and Applied Biosystems data.
High-throughput RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) greatly expands the potential for genomics discoveries, but the wide variety of platforms, protocols and performance capabilitites has created the need for comprehensive reference data. Here we describe the Association of Biomolecular Resource Facilities next-generation sequencing (ABRF-NGS) study on RNA-seq. We carried out replicate experiments across 15 laboratory sites using reference RNA standards to test four protocols (poly-A–selected, ribo-depleted, size-selected and degraded) on five sequencing platforms (Illumina HiSeq, Life Technologies PGM and Proton, Pacific Biosciences RS and Roche 454). The results show high intraplatform (Spearman rank R > 0.86) and inter-platform (R > 0.83) concordance for expression measures across the deep-count platforms, but highly variable efficiency and cost for splice junction and variant detection between all platforms. For intact RNA, gene expression profiles from rRNA-depletion and poly-A enrichment are similar. In addition, rRNA depletion enables effective analysis of degraded RNA samples. This study provides a broad foundation for cross-platform standardization, evaluation and improvement of RNA-seq.
High-throughput RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) enables comprehensive scans of entire transcriptomes, but best practices for analyzing RNA-seq data have not been fully defined, particularly for data collected with multiple sequencing platforms or at multiple sites. Here we used standardized RNA samples with built-in controls to examine sources of error in large-scale RNA-seq studies and their impact on the detection of differentially expressed genes (DEGs). Analysis of variations in guanine-cytosine content, gene coverage, sequencing error rate and insert size allowed identification of decreased reproducibility across sites. Moreover, commonly used methods for normalization (cqn, EDASeq, RUV2, sva, PEER) varied in their ability to remove these systematic biases, depending on sample complexity and initial data quality. Normalization methods that combine data from genes across sites are strongly recommended to identify and remove site-specific effects and can substantially improve RNA-seq studies.
A feature common to all DNA sequencing technologies is the presence of base-call errors in the sequenced reads. The implications of such errors are application specific, ranging from minor informatics nuisances to major problems affecting biological inferences. Recently developed “next-gen” sequencing technologies have greatly reduced the cost of sequencing, but have been shown to be more error prone than previous technologies. Both position specific (depending on the location in the read) and sequence specific (depending on the sequence in the read) errors have been identified in Illumina and Life Technology sequencing platforms. We describe a new type of systematic error that manifests as statistically unlikely accumulations of errors at specific genome (or transcriptome) locations.

We characterize and describe systematic errors using overlapping paired reads from high-coverage data. We show that such errors occur in approximately 1 in 1000 base pairs, and that they are highly replicable across experiments. We identify motifs that are frequent at systematic error sites, and describe a classifier that distinguishes heterozygous sites from systematic error. Our classifier is designed to accommodate data from experiments in which the allele frequencies at heterozygous sites are not necessarily 0.5 (such as in the case of RNA-Seq), and can be used with single-end datasets.

Systematic errors can easily be mistaken for heterozygous sites in individuals, or for SNPs in population analyses. Systematic errors are particularly problematic in low coverage experiments, or in estimates of allele-specific expression from RNA-Seq data. Our characterization of systematic error has allowed us to develop a program, called SysCall, for identifying and correcting such errors. We conclude that correction of systematic errors is important to consider in the design and interpretation of high-throughput sequencing experiments.

We have mapped and quantified mouse transcriptomes by deeply sequencing them and recording how frequently each gene is represented in the sequence sample (RNA-Seq). This provides a digital measure of the presence and prevalence of transcripts from known and previously unknown genes. We report reference measurements composed of 41–52 million mapped 25-base-pair reads for poly(A)-selected RNA from adult mouse brain, liver and skeletal muscle tissues. We used RNA standards to quantify transcript prevalence and to test the linear range of transcript detection, which spanned five orders of magnitude. Although >90% of uniquely mapped reads fell within known exons, the remaining data suggest new and revised gene models, including changed or additional promoters, exons and 3′ untranscribed regions, as well as new candidate microRNA precursors. RNA splice events, which are not readily measured by standard gene expression microarray or serial analysis of gene expression methods, were detected directly by mapping splice-crossing sequence reads. We observed 1.45 105 distinct splices, and alternative splices were prominent, with 3,500 different genes expressing one or more alternate internal splices.
There is a critical need for standard approaches to assess, report and compare the technical performance of genome-scale differential gene expression experiments. Here we assess technical performance with a proposed standard ‘dashboard’ of metrics derived from analysis of external spike-in RNA control ratio mixtures. These control ratio mixtures with defined abundance ratios enable assessment of diagnostic performance of differentially expressed transcript lists, limit of detection of ratio (LODR) estimates and expression ratio variability and measurement bias. The performance metrics suite is applicable to analysis of a typical experiment, and here we also apply these metrics to evaluate technical performance among laboratories. An interlaboratory study using identical samples shared among 12 laboratories with three different measurement processes demonstrates generally consistent diagnostic power across 11 laboratories. Ratio measurement variability and bias are also comparable among laboratories for the same measurement process. We observe different biases for measurement processes using different mRNA-enrichment protocols.
The ERCC 2.0 workshop was held immediately following the ENCODE Project meeting to encourage participation from that scientific cohort. There were over 65 participants (including remote attendees) representing industry, academia, government, and other nonprofit institutions (for full list of all meeting registrants see Appendix I). Meeting participants presented their experience developing and using the original ERCC controls as well as their proposed designs and current development efforts for building an updated and expanded suite of RNA controls.
We identified the sequence-specific starting positions of consecutive miscalls in the mapping of reads obtained from the Illumina Genome Analyser (GA). Detailed analysis of the miscall pattern indicated that the underlying mechanism involves sequence-specific interference of the base elongation process during sequencing. The two major sequence patterns that trigger this sequence-specific error (SSE) are: (i) inverted repeats and (ii) GGC sequences. We speculate that these sequences favor dephasing by inhibiting single-base elongation, by: (i) folding single-stranded DNA and (ii) altering enzyme preference. This phenomenon is a major cause of sequence coverage variability and of the unfavorable bias observed for population-targeted methods such as RNA-seq and ChIP-seq. Moreover, SSE is a potential cause of false single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) calls and also significantly hinders de novo assembly. This article highlights the importance of recognizing SSE and its underlying mechanisms in the hope of enhancing the potential usefulness of the Illumina sequencers.
Only a small proportion of the mouse genome is transcribed into mature messenger RNA transcripts. There is an international collaborative effort to identify all full-length mRNA transcripts from the mouse, and to ensure that each is represented in a physical collection of clones. Here we report the manual annotation of 60,770 full-length mouse complementary DNA sequences. These are clustered into 33,409 ‘transcriptional units’, contributing 90.1% of a newly established mouse transcriptome database. Of these transcriptional units, 4,258 are new protein-coding and 11,665 are new non-coding messages, indicating that non-coding RNA is a major component of the transcriptome. 41% of all transcriptional units showed evidence of alternative splicing. In protein-coding transcripts, 79% of splice variations altered the protein product. Whole-transcriptome analyses resulted in the identification of 2,431 sense–antisense pairs. The present work, completely supported by physical clones, provides the most comprehensive survey of a mammalian transcriptome so far, and is a valuable resource for functional genomics.
We carried out the first analysis of alternative splicing complexity in human tissues using mRNA-Seq data. New splice junctions were detected in ∼20% of multiexon genes, many of which are tissue specific. By combining mRNA-Seq and EST-cDNA sequence data, we estimate that transcripts from ∼95% of multiexon genes undergo alternative splicing and that there are ∼100,000 intermediate- to high-abundance alternative splicing events in major human tissues. From a comparison with quantitative alternative splicing microarray profiling data, we also show that mRNA-Seq data provide reliable measurements for exon inclusion levels.
Spike-In RNA variants (SIRVs) enable for the first time the validation of RNA sequencing workflows using external isoform transcript controls. 69 transcripts, derived from seven human model genes, cover the eukaryotic transcriptome complexity of start- and end-site variations, alternative splicing, overlapping genes, and antisense transcription in a condensed format. Reference RNA samples were spiked with SIRV mixes, sequenced, and exemplarily four data evaluation pipelines were challenged to account for biases introduced by the RNA-Seq workflow. The deviations of the respective isoform quantifications from the known inputs allow to determine the comparability of sequencing experiments and to extrapolate to which degree alterations in an RNA-Seq workflow affect gene expression measurements. The SIRVs as external isoform controls are an important gauge for inter-experimental comparability and a modular spike-in contribution to clear the way for diagnostic RNA-Seq applications.
Next-generation sequencing (NGS) technologies are revolutionizing genome research, and in particular, their application to transcriptomics (RNA-seq) is increasingly being used for gene expression profiling as a replacement for microarrays. However, the properties of RNA-seq data have not been yet fully established, and additional research is needed for understanding how these data respond to differential expression analysis. In this work, we set out to gain insights into the characteristics of RNA-seq data analysis by studying an important parameter of this technology: the sequencing depth. We have analyzed how sequencing depth affects the detection of transcripts and their identification as differentially expressed, looking at aspects such as transcript biotype, length, expression level, and fold-change. We have evaluated different algorithms available for the analysis of RNA-seq and proposed a novel approach—NOISeq—that differs from existing methods in that it is data-adaptive and nonparametric. Our results reveal that most existing methodologies suffer from a strong dependency on sequencing depth for their differential expression calls and that this results in a considerable number of false positives that increases as the number of reads grows. In contrast, our proposed method models the noise distribution from the actual data, can therefore better adapt to the size of the data set, and is more effective in controlling the rate of false discoveries. This work discusses the true potential of RNA-seq for studying regulation at low expression ranges, the noise within RNA-seq data, and the issue of replication.
Obtaining RNA-seq measurements involves a complex data analytical process with a large number of competing algorithms as options. There is much debate about which of these methods provides the best approach. Unfortunately, it is currently difficult to evaluate their performance due in part to a lack of sensitive assessment metrics. We present a series of statistical summaries and plots to evaluate the performance in terms of specificity and sensitivity, available as a R/Bioconductor package ( Using two independent datasets, we assessed seven competing pipelines. Performance was generally poor, with two methods clearly underperforming and RSEM slightly outperforming the rest.
High-throughput mRNA sequencing (RNA-Seq) promises simultaneous transcript discovery and abundance estimation. However, this would require algorithms that are not restricted by prior gene annotations and that account for alternative transcription and splicing. Here we introduce such algorithms in an open-source software program called Cufflinks. To test Cufflinks, we sequenced and analyzed >430 million paired 75-bp RNA-Seq reads from a mouse myoblast cell line over a differentiation time series. We detected 13,692 known transcripts and 3,724 previously unannotated ones, 62% of which are supported by independent expression data or by homologous genes in other species. Over the time series, 330 genes showed complete switches in the dominant transcription start site (TSS) or splice isoform, and we observed more subtle shifts in 1,304 other genes. These results suggest that Cufflinks can illuminate the substantial regulatory flexibility and complexity in even this well-studied model of muscle development and that it can improve transcriptome-based genome annotation.
Ten years ago next-generation sequencing (NGS) technologies appeared on the market. During the past decade, tremendous progress has been made in terms of speed, read length, and throughput, along with a sharp reduction in per-base cost. Together, these advances democratized NGS and paved the way for the development of a large number of novel NGS applications in basic science as well as in translational research areas such as clinical diagnostics, agrigenomics, and forensic science. Here we provide an overview of the evolution of NGS and discuss the most significant improvements in sequencing technologies and library preparation protocols. We also explore the current landscape of NGS applications and provide a perspective for future developments.
Exome and whole-genome sequencing studies are becoming increasingly common, but little is known about the accuracy of the genotype calls made by the commonly used platforms. Here we use replicate high-coverage sequencing of blood and saliva DNA samples from four European-American individuals to estimate lower bounds on the error rates of Complete Genomics and Illumina HiSeq whole-genome and whole-exome sequencing. Error rates for nonreference genotype calls range from 0.1% to 0.6%, depending on the platform and the depth of coverage. Additionally, we found (1) no difference in the error profiles or rates between blood and saliva samples; (2) Complete Genomics sequences had substantially higher error rates than Illumina sequences had; (3) error rates were higher (up to 6%) for rare or unique variants; (4) error rates generally declined with genotype quality (GQ) score, but in a nonlinear fashion for the Illumina data, likely due to loss of specificity of GQ scores greater than 60; and (5) error rates increased with increasing depth of coverage for the Illumina data. These findings, especially (3)–(5), suggest that caution should be taken in interpreting the results of next-generation sequencing-based association studies, and even more so in clinical application of this technology in the absence of validation by other more robust sequencing or genotyping methods.
High throughput sequencing technology provides us unprecedented opportunities to study transcriptome dynamics. Compared to microarray-based gene expression profiling, RNA-Seq has many advantages, such as high resolution, low background, and ability to identify novel transcripts. Moreover, for genes with multiple isoforms, expression of each isoform may be estimated from RNA-Seq data. Despite these advantages, recent work revealed that base level read counts from RNA-Seq data may not be randomly distributed and can be affected by local nucleotide composition. It was not clear though how the base level read count bias may affect gene level expression estimates.
While the importance of random sequencing errors decreases at higher DNA or RNA sequencing depths, systematic sequencing errors (SSEs) dominate at high sequencing depths and can be difficult to distinguish from biological variants. These SSEs can cause base quality scores to underestimate the probability of error at certain genomic positions, resulting in false positive variant calls, particularly in mixtures such as samples with RNA editing, tumors, circulating tumor cells, bacteria, mitochondrial heteroplasmy, or pooled DNA. Most algorithms proposed for correction of SSEs require a data set used to calculate association of SSEs with various features in the reads and sequence context. This data set is typically either from a part of the data set being “recalibrated” (Genome Analysis ToolKit, or GATK) or from a separate data set with special characteristics (SysCall). Here, we combine the advantages of these approaches by adding synthetic RNA spike-in standards to human RNA, and use GATK to recalibrate base quality scores with reads mapped to the spike-in standards. Compared to conventional GATK recalibration that uses reads mapped to the genome, spike-ins improve the accuracy of Illumina base quality scores by a mean of 5 Phred-scaled quality score units, and by as much as 13 units at CpG sites. In addition, since the spike-in data used for recalibration are independent of the genome being sequenced, our method allows run-specific recalibration even for the many species without a comprehensive and accurate SNP database. We also use GATK with the spike-in standards to demonstrate that the Illumina RNA sequencing runs overestimate quality scores for AC, CC, GC, GG, and TC dinucleotides, while SOLiD has less dinucleotide SSEs but more SSEs for certain cycles. We conclude that using these DNA and RNA spike-in standards with GATK improves base quality score recalibration.
Clinical adoption of human genome sequencing requires methods that output genotypes with known accuracy at millions or billions of positions across a genome. Because of substantial discordance among calls made by existing sequencing methods and algorithms, there is a need for a highly accurate set of genotypes across a genome that can be used as a benchmark. Here we present methods to make high-confidence, single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP), indel and homozygous reference genotype calls for NA12878, the pilot genome for the Genome in a Bottle Consortium. We minimize bias toward any method by integrating and arbitrating between 14 data sets from five sequencing technologies, seven read mappers and three variant callers. We identify regions for which no confident genotype call could be made, and classify them into different categories based on reasons for uncertainty. Our genotype calls are publicly available on the Genome Comparison and Analytic Testing website to enable real-time benchmarking of any method.
Several recent benchmarking efforts provide reference datasets and samples to improve genome sequencing and calling of germline and somatic mutations.
The Genome in a Bottle Consortium, hosted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is creating reference materials and data for human genome sequencing, as well as methods for genome comparison and benchmarking. Here, we describe a large, diverse set of sequencing data for seven human genomes; five are current or candidate NIST Reference Materials. The pilot genome, NA12878, has been released as NIST RM 8398. We also describe data from two Personal Genome Project trios, one of Ashkenazim Jewish ancestry and one of Chinese ancestry. The data come from 12 technologies: BioNano Genomics, Complete Genomics paired-end and LFR, Ion Proton exome, Oxford Nanopore, Pacific Biosciences, SOLiD, 10X Genomics GemCode WGS, and Illumina exome and WGS paired-end, mate-pair, and synthetic long reads. Cell lines, DNA, and data from these individuals are publicly available. Therefore, we expect these data to be useful for revealing novel information about the human genome and improving sequencing technologies, SNP, indel, and structural variant calling, and de novo assembly.