Blue Collar Bioinformatics

Note: new posts have moved to Please look there for the latest updates and comments

Posts Tagged ‘freebayes

Validating multiple cancer variant callers and prioritization in tumor-only samples

with 5 comments


The post discusses work validating multiple cancer variant callers in bcbio-nextgen using a synthetic reference call set from the ICGC-TCGA DREAM challenge. We’ve previously validated germline variant calling methods, but cancer calling is additionally challenging. Tumor samples have mixed cellularity due to contaminating normal sample, and consist of multiple sub-clones with different somatic variations. Low-frequency sub-clonal variations can be critical to understand disease progression but are more difficult to detect with high sensitivity and precision.

Publicly available whole genome truth sets like the NA12878 Genome in a Bottle reference materials don’t currently exist for cancer calling, but other groups have been working to prepare standards for use in evaluating callers. The DREAM challenge provides a set of synthetic datasets that include cellularity and multiple sub-clones. There is also on ongoing DREAM contest with real, non-simulated data. In addition, the ICGC has done extensive work on assessing the challenges in cancer variant calling and produced a detailed comparison of multiple variant calling pipelines. Finally, Bina recently released a simulation framework called varsim that they used to compare multiple callers as part of their cancer benchmarking. I’m excited about all this community benchmarking and hope this work can contribute to the goal of having fully consented real patient reference materials, leading to a good understanding of variant caller tradeoffs.

In this work, we evaluated cancer tumor/normal variant calling with synthetic dataset 3 from the DREAM challenge, using multiple approaches to detect SNPs, indels and structural variants. A majority voting ensemble approach combines inputs from multiple callers into a final callset with good sensitivity and precision. We also provide a prioritization method to enrich for somatic mutations in tumor samples without matched normals.

Cancer variant calling in bcbio is due to contributions and support from multiple members of the community:

  • Miika Ahdesmaki and Justin Johnson at AstraZeneca collaborated with our group on integrating and evaluating multiple variant callers. Their financial support helped fund our time on this comparison, and their scientific contributions improved SNP and indel calling.
  • Luca Beltrame integrated a number of cancer variant callers into bcbio and wrote the initial framework for somatic calling.
  • Lorena Pantano integrated variant callers and performed benchmarking work. Members of our group, the Harvard Chan school Bioinformatics core, regularly contribute to bcbio development and validation work.
  • The Wolfson Wohl Cancer Research Centre supported our work on validation of somatic callers.
  • James Cuff, Paul Edmon and the team at Harvard FAS research computing provided compute infrastructure and support that enabled the large number of benchmarking runs it takes to get good quality calling.

I’m continually grateful to the community for all the contributions and support. The MuTect commit history for bcbio is a great example of multiple distributed collaborators working towards the shared goal of integrating and validating a caller.

Variant caller validation

We used a large collection of open source variant callers to detect SNPs, Indels and structural variants:

bcbio runs these callers and uses simple ensemble methods to combine small variants (SNPs, indels) and structural variants into final combined callsets. The new small variant ensemble method uses a simplified majority rule classifier that picks variants to pass based on being present in a configurable number of samples. This performs well and is faster than the previous implementation that made use of both this approach and a subsequent support vector machine step.

Using the 100x whole genome tumor/normal pair from DREAM synthetic dataset 3 we evaluated each of the callers for sensitivity and precision on small variants (SNPs and indels). This synthetic dataset contains 100% tumor cellularity with 3 subclones at allele frequencies of 50%, 33% and 20%.

Cancer evaluation for SNPs and indels

In addition to the whole genome results, the validation album includes results from running against the same dataset limited to exome regions. This has identical patterns of sensitivity and precision. It runs quicker, so is useful for evaluating changes to filtering or program parameters.

We also looked at structural variant calls for larger deletions, duplications and inversions. Here is the precision and sensitivity for duplications across multiple size classes:

Cancer evaluation for structural variants -- duplications.

The full album of validation results includes the comparisons for deletion and inversion events. These comparisons measure the contributions of individual callers within an ensemble approach that attempts to maximize sensitivity and specificity for the combined callset. Keep in mind that each of the individual results make use of other caller information in filtering. Our goal is to create the best possible combined calls, rather than a platform for unbiased comparison of structural variant callers. We’re also actively working on improving sensitivity and specificity for individual callers and expect the numbers to continue to evolve. For example, Zev Kronenberg added WHAM’s ability to identify different classes of structural changes, and we’re still in the process of improving the classifier.

Improvements in filtering

Our evaluation comparisons show best effort attempts to provide good quality calls for every caller. The final results often come from multiple rounds of improving sensitivity and precision by adjusting program parameters or downstream filtering. The goal of tightly integrating bcbio with validation is that the community can work on defining a set of parameters and filters that work best in multiple cases, and then use these directly within the same framework for processing real data.

In presenting the final results only, it may not be clear that plugging a specific tool into a custom bash script will not always produce the same results we see here. As an example, here are the improvements in FreeBayes sensitivity and precision from our initial implementation, presented over the exome regions of synthetic dataset 3:

FreeBayes caller improvements

The original implementation used a vcfsamplediff based approach to filtering, as recommended on the FreeBayes mailing list. The current, improved, version uses a custom filter based on genotype likelihoods, based on the approach in the speeseq pipeline.

In general, you can find all of the integration work for individual callers in the bcbio source code, broken down by caller. For instance, here is the integration work on MuTect. The goal is to make all of the configuration settings and filters fully transparent so users can understand how they work when using bcbio, or transplant them into their own custom pipelines.

Tumor-only prioritization

The above validations were all done on cancer calling with tumor and normal pairs. The filters to separate pre-existing germline mutations from cancer specific somatic mutations rely on the presence of a normal sample. In some cases, we don’t have matched normal samples to do this filtering. Two common examples are FFPE samples and tumor cell lines. For these samples, we’d like to be able to prioritize likely tumor specific variations for followup using publicly available resources.

We implemented a prioritization strategy from tumor-only samples in bcbio that takes advantage of publicly available resources like COSMIC, ClinVar, 1000 genomes, ESP and ExAC. It uses GEMINI to annotate the initial tumor-only VCF calls with external annotations, then extracts these to prioritize variants with high or medium predicted impact, not present in 1000 genomes or ExAC at more than 1% in any subpopulation, or identified as pathenogenic in COSMIC or ClinVar.

Validating this prioritization strategy requires real tumor samples with known mutations. Our synthetic datasets are not useful here, since the variants do not necessarily model standard biological variability. You could spike in biologically relevant mutations, as done in the VarSim cancer simulated data, but this will bias towards our prioritization approach since both would use the same set of necessarily imperfect known variants and population level mutations.

We took the approach of using published tumor data with validated mutations. Andreas Sjödin identified a Hepatoblastoma exome sequencing paper with publicly available sample data and 23 validated cancer related variations across 5 samples. This is a baseline to help determine how stringent to be in removing potential germline variants.

The prioritization enriches variants of interest by 35-50x without losing sensitivity to confirmed variants:

sample caller confirmed enrichment additional filtered
HB2T freebayes 6 / 7 44x 1288 56046
HB2T mutect 6 / 7 48x 1014 47755
HB2T vardict 6 / 7 36x 1464 52090
HB3T freebayes 4 / 4 46x 1218 54997
HB3T mutect 4 / 4 49x 961 46894
HB3T vardict 4 / 4 35x 1511 51404
HB6T freebayes 4 / 4 43x 1314 56240
HB6T mutect 4 / 4 51x 946 47747
HB6T vardict 3 / 4 35x 1497 51625
HB8T freebayes 6 / 6 42x 1364 57121
HB8T mutect 6 / 6 47x 1053 48639
HB8T vardict 6 / 6 35x 1542 52642
HB9T freebayes 2 / 2 41x 1420 57582
HB9T mutect 2 / 2 44x 1142 49858
HB9T vardict 2 / 2 36x 1488 53098

We consistently missed one confirmed mutation in the HB2T sample. This variant, reported as a somatic mutation in an uncharacterized open reading frame (C2orf57), may actually be a germline mutation in the study sub-population. The variant is present at a 10% frequency in the East Asian population but only 2% in the overall population, based on data from both the ExAC and 1000 genomes projects. Although the ethnicity of the original samples is not reported, the study authors are all from China. This helps demonstrate the effectiveness of large population frequencies, stratified by population, in prioritizing and evaluating variant calls.

The major challenge with tumor-only prioritization approaches is that you can’t expect to accurately filter private germline mutations that you won’t find in genome-wide catalogs. With a sample set using a small number of validated variants it’s hard to estimate the proportion of ‘additional’ variants in the table above that are germline false positives versus the proportion that are additional tumor-only mutations not specifically evaluated in the study. We plan to continue to refine filtering with additional validated datasets to help improve this discrimination.

Practically, bcbio automatically runs prioritization with all tumor-only analyses. It filters variants by adding a “LowPriority“ filter to the output VCF so users can readily identify variants flagged during the prioritization.

Future work

This is a baseline for assessing SNP, indel and structural variant calls in cancer analyses. It also prioritizes impact variants in cases where we lack normal matched normals. We plan to continue to improve cancer variant calling in bcbio and some areas of future focus include:

  • Informing variant calling using estimates of tumor purity and sub-clonal frequency. bcbio integrates CNVkit, a copy number caller, which exports read count segmentation data. Tools like THetA2, phyloWGS, PyLOH and sciClone use these inputs to estimate normal contamination and sub-clonal frequencies.
  • Focusing on difficult to call genomic regions and provide additional mechanisms to better resolve and improve caller accuracy in these regions. Using small variant calls to define problematic genome areas with large structural rearrangements can help prioritize and target the use of more computationally expensive methods for copy number assessment, structural variant calling and de-novo assembly.
  • Evaluating calling and tumor-only prioritization on Horizon reference standards. They contain a larger set of validated mutations at a variety of frequencies.

As always, we welcome suggestions, contributions and feedback.

Written by Brad Chapman

March 5, 2015 at 6:13 am

Validating generalized incremental joint variant calling with GATK HaplotypeCaller, FreeBayes, Platypus and samtools

with 20 comments

Incremental joint variant calling

Variant calling in large populations is challenging due to the difficulty in providing a consistent set of calls at all possible variable positions. A finalized set of calls from a large population should distinguish reference calls, without a variant, from no calls, positions without enough read support to make a call. Calling algorithms should also be able to make use of information from other samples in the population to improve sensitivity and precision.

There are two issues with trying to provide complete combined call sets. First, it is computationally expensive to call a large number of samples simultaneously. Second, adding any new samples to a callset requires repeating this expensive computation. This N+1 problem highlights the inflexibility around simultaneous pooled calling of populations.

The GATK team’s recent 3.x release has a solution to these issues: Incremental joint variant discovery. The approach calls samples independently but produces a genomic VCF (gVCF) output for each individual that contains probability information for both variants and reference calls at non-variant positions. The genotyping step combines these individual gVCF files, making use of the information from the independent samples to produce a final callset.

We added GATK incremental joint calling to bcbio-nextgen along with a generalized implementation that performs joint calling with other variant callers. Practically, bcbio now supports this approach with four variant callers:

  • GATK HaplotypeCaller (3.2-2) – Follows current GATK recommended best practices for calling, with Variant Quality Score Recalibration used on whole genome and large population callsets. This uses individual sample gVCFs as inputs to joint calling.
  • FreeBayes (0.9.14-15) – A haplotype-based caller from Erik Garrison in Gabor Marth’s lab.
  • Platypus ( – A recently published haplotype-based variant caller from Andy Rimmer at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genomics.
  • samtools (1.0) – The recently released version of samtools and bcftools with a new multiallelic calling method. John Marshall, Petr Danecek, James Bonfield and Martin Pollard at Sanger have continued samtools development from Heng Li’s code base.

The implementation includes integrated validation against the Genome in a Bottle NA12878 reference standard, allowing comparisons between joint calling, multi-sample pooled calling and single sample calling. Sensitivity and precision for joint calling is comparable to pooled calling, suggesting we should optimize design of variant processing to cater towards individual calling and subsequent finalization of calls, rather than pooling. Generalized joint calling enables combining multiple sets of calls under an identical processing framework, which will be important as we seek to integrate large publicly available populations to extract biological signal in complex multi-gene diseases.


There is not a consistent set of terminology around combined variant calling, but to develop one, here is how I’ll use the terms:

  • Joint calling – Calling a group of samples together with algorithms that do not need simultaneous access to all population BAM files. GATK’s incremental joint calling uses gVCF intermediates. Our generalized implementation performs recalling using individual BAMs supplemented with a combined VCF file of variants called in all samples.
  • Pooled or batch calling – Traditional grouped sample calling, where algorithms make use of read data from all BAM files of a group. This scales to smaller batches of samples.
  • Single sample calling – Variant calling with a single sample only, not making use of information from other samples.
  • Squaring off or Backfilling – Creating a VCF file from a group of samples that distinguishes reference from no-call at every position called as a variant in one of the samples. With a squared off VCF, we can use the sample matrix to consider call rate at any position. Large populations called in smaller batches will not be able to distinguish reference from no-call at variants unique to each sub-pool, so will need to be re-processed to achieve this.


bcbio-nextgen automates the calling and validation used in this comparison. We aim to make it easy to install, use and extend.

For GATK HaplotypeCaller based joint genotyping, we implement the GATK best practices recommended by the Broad. Individual sample variant calls produce a gVCF output file that contains both variants as well as probability information about reference regions. Next, variants are jointly called using GenotypeGVFs to produce the final population VCF file.

For the other supported callers – FreeBayes, Platypus and samtools – we use a generalized recalling approach, implemented in bcbio.variation.recall. bcbio-nextgen first calls each individual sample as a standard VCF. We then combine these individual sample VCFs into a global summary of all variant positions called across all samples. Finally we recall at each potential variant position, producing a globally squared off joint callset for the sample that we merge into the final joint VCF. This process parallelizes by chromosome region and by sample, allowing efficient use of resources in both clusters and large multiple core machines.

bcbio.variation.recall generalizes to any variant caller that supports recalling with an input set of variants. Knowing the context of potential variants helps inform better calling. This method requires having the individual sample BAM file available to perform recalling. Having the reads present does provide the ability to improve recalling by taking advantage of realigning reads into haplotypes given known variants, an approach we’ll explore more in future work. The implementation is also general and could support gVCF based combining as this becomes available for non-GATK callers.

Generalized joint calling

We evaluated all callers against the NA12878 Genome in a Bottle reference standard using the NA12878/NA12891/NA12892 trio from the CEPH 1463 Pedigree, with 50x whole genome coverage from Illumina’s platinum genomes. The validation provides putative true positives (concordant), false negatives (discordant missing), and false positives (discordant extra) for all callers:

Incremental joint calling: GATK HaplotypeCaller, FreeBayes, Platypus, samtools

Overall, there is not a large difference in sensitivity and precision for the four methods, giving us four high-quality options for performing joint variant calling on germline samples. The post-calling filters provide similar levels of false positives to enable comparisons of sensitivity. Notably, samtools new calling method is now as good as other approaches, in contrast with previous evaluations, demonstrating the value of continuing to improve open source tools and having updated benchmarks to reflect these improvements.

Improving sensitivity and precision is always an ongoing process and this evaluation identifies some areas to focus on for future work:

  • Platypus SNP and indel calling is slightly less sensitive than other approaches. We worked on Platypus calling parameters and post-call filtering to increase sensitivity from the defaults without introducing a large number of false positives, but welcome suggestions for more improvements.
  • samtools indel calling needs additional work to reduce false positive indels in joint and pooled calling. There is more detail on this below in the comparison with single sample samtools calling.

Joint versus pooled versus single approaches

We validated the same NA12878 trio with pooled and single sample calling to assess the advantages of joint calling over single sample, and whether joint calling is comparable in quality to calling simultaneously. The full evaluation for pooled calling shows that performance is similar to joint methods:

Pooled calling: GATK HaplotypeCaller, FreeBayes, Platypus, samtools

If you plot joint, pooled and single sample calling next to each other there are some interesting small differences between approaches that identify areas for further improvement. As an example, here are GATK HaplotypeCaller and samtools with the three approaches presented side by side:

Joint, pooled and single calling: GATK HaplotypeCaller and samtools

GATK HaplotypeCaller sensitivity and precision are close between the three methods, with small trade offs for different methods. For SNPs, pooled calling is most sensitive at the cost of more false positives, and single calling is more precise at the cost of some sensitivity. Joint calling is intermediate between these two extremes. For indels, joint calling is the most sensitive at the cost of more false positives, with pooled calling falling between joint and single sample calling.

For samtools, precision is currently best tuned for single sample calling. Pooled calling provides better sensitivity, but at the cost of a larger number of false positives. The joint calling implementation regains a bit of this sensitivity but still suffers from increased false positives. The authors of samtools tuned variant calling nicely for single samples, but there are opportunities to increase sensitivity when incorporating multiple samples via a joint method.

Generally, we don’t expect the same advantages for pooled or joint calling in a trio as we’d see in a larger population. However, even for this small evaluation population we can see the improvements available by considering additional variant information from other samples. For Platypus we unexpectedly had better calls from joint calling compared to pooled calling, but expect these differences to harmonize over time as the tools continue to improve.

Overall, this comparison identifies areas where we can hope to improve generalized joint calling. We plan to provide specific suggestions and feedback to samtools, Platypus and other tool authors as part of a continuous validation and feedback process.

Reproducing and extending the analysis

All variant callers and calling methods validated here are available for running in bcbio-nextgen. bcbio automatically installs the generalized joint calling implementation, and it is also available as a java executable at bcbio.variation.recall. All tools are freely available, open source and community developed and we welcome your feedback and contributions.

The documentation contains full instructions for running the joint analysis. This is an extended version of previous work on validation of trio calling and uses the same input dataset with a bcbio configuration that includes single, pooled and joint calling:

mkdir -p NA12878-trio-eval/config NA12878-trio-eval/input NA12878-trio-eval/work-joint
cd NA12878-trio-eval/config
cd ../input
cd ../work_joint ../config/NA12878-trio-wgs-joint.yaml -n 16

Having a general joint calling implementation with good sensitivity and precision is a starting point for more research and development. To build off this work we plan to:

  • Provide better ensemble calling methods that scale to large multi-sample calling projects.
  • Work with FreeBayes, Platypus and samtools tool authors to provide support for gVCF style files to avoid the need to have BAM files present during joint calling, and to improve sensitivity and precision during recalling-based joint approaches.
  • Combine variant calls with local reassembly to improve sensitivity and precision. Erik Garrison’s glia provides streaming local realignment given a set of potential variants. Jared Simpson used the SGA assembler to combine FreeBayes calls with de-novo assembly. Ideally we could identify difficult regions of the genome based on alignment information and focus more computationally expensive assembly approaches there.

We plan to continue working with the open source scientific community to integrate, extend and improve these tools and are happy for any feedback and suggestions.

Written by Brad Chapman

October 7, 2014 at 8:53 am

Whole genome trio variant calling evaluation: low complexity regions, GATK VQSR and high depth filters

with 7 comments

Whole genome trio validation

I’ve written previously about the approaches we use to validate the bcbio-nextgen variant calling framework, specifically evaluating aligners and variant calling methods and assessing the impact of BAM post-alignment preparation methods. We’re continually looking to improve both the pipeline and validation methods and two recent papers helped advance best-practices for evaluating and filtering variant calls:

  • Michael Linderman and colleagues describe approaches for validating clinical exome and whole genome sequencing results. One key result I took from the paper was the difference in assessment between exome and whole genome callsets. Coverage differences due to capture characterize discordant exome variants, while complex genome regions drive whole genome discordants. Reading this paper pushed us to evaluate whole genome population based variant calling, which is now feasible due to improvements in bcbio-nextgen scalability.
  • Heng Li identified variant calling artifacts and proposed filtering approaches to remove them, as well as characterizing caller error rates. We’ll investigate two of the filters he proposed: removing variants in low complexity regions, and filtering high depth variants.

We use the NA12878/NA12891/NA12892 trio from the CEPH 1463 Pedigree as an input dataset, consisting of 50x whole genome reads from Illumina’s platinum genomes. This enables both whole genome comparisons, as well as pooled family calling that replicates best-practice for calling within populations. We aligned reads using bwa-mem and performed streaming de-duplication detection with samblaster. Combined with no recalibration or realignment based on our previous assessment, this enabled fully streamed preparation of BAM files from input fastq reads. We called variants using two realigning callers: FreeBayes (v0.9.14-7) and GATK HaplotypeCaller (3.1-1-g07a4bf8) and evaluated calls using the Genome in a Bottle reference callset for NA12878 (v0.2-NIST-RTG). The bcbio-nextgen documentation has full instructions for reproducing the analysis.

This work provides three practical improvements for variant calling and validation:

  • Low complexity regions contribute 45% of the indels in whole genome evaluations, and are highly variable between callers. This replicates Heng’s results and Michael’s assessment of common errors in whole genome samples, and indicates we need to specifically identify and assess the 2% of the genome labeled as low complexity. Practically, we’ll exclude them from further evaluations to avoid non-representative bias, and suggest removing or flagging them when producing whole genome variant calls.
  • We add a filter for removing false positives from FreeBayes calls in high depth, low quality regions. This removes variants in high depth regions that are likely due to copy number or other larger structural events, and replicates Heng’s filtering results.
  • We improved settings for GATK variant quality recalibration (VQSR). The default VQSR settings are conservative for SNPs and need adjustment to be compatible with the sensitivity available through FreeBayes or GATK using hard filters.

Low complexity regions

Low complexity regions (LCRs) consist of locally repetitive sections of the genome. Heng’s paper identified these using mdust and provides a BED file of LCRs covering 2% of the genome. Repeats in these regions can lead to artifacts in sequencing and variant calling. Heng’s paper provides examples of areas where a full de-novo assembly correctly resolves the underlying structure, while local reassembly variant callers do not.

To assess the impact of low complexity regions on variant calling, we compared calls from FreeBayes and GATK HaplotypeCaller to the Genome in a Bottle reference callset with and without low complexity regions included. The graph below shows concordant non-reference variant calls alongside discordant calls in three categories: missing discordants are potential false negatives, extras are potential false positives, and shared are variants that overlap between the evaluation and reference callsets but differ due to zygosity (heterozygote versus homozygote) or indel representation.

Low complexity regions for GATK and FreeBayes validation

  • For SNPs, removing low complexity regions removes approximately ~2% of the total calls for both FreeBayes and GATK. This corresponds to the 2% of the genome subtracted by removing LCRs.
  • For indels, removing LCRs removes 45% of the calls due to the over-representation of indels in repeat regions. Additionally, this results in approximately equal GATK and FreeBayes concordant indels after LCR removal. Since the Genome in a Bottle reference callset uses GATK HaplotypeCaller to resolve discrepant calls, this change in concordance is likely due to bias towards GATK’s approaches for indel resolution in complex regions.
  • The default GATK VQSR calls for SNPs are not as sensitive, relative to FreeBayes calls. I’ll describe additional work to improve this below.

Practically, we’ll now exclude low complexity regions in variant comparisons to avoid potential bias and more accurately represent calls in the remaining non-LCR genome. We’ll additionally flag low complexity indels in non-evaluation callsets as likely to require additional followup. Longer term, we need to incorporate callers specifically designed for repeats like lobSTR to more accurately characterize these regions.

High depth, low quality, filter for FreeBayes

The second filter proposed in Heng’s paper was removal of high depth variants. This was a useful change in mindset for me as I’ve primarily thought about removing low quality, low depth variants. However, high depth regions can indicate potential copy number variations or hidden duplicates which result in spurious calls.

Comparing true and false positive FreeBayes calls with a pooled multi-sample call quality of less than 500 identifies a large grouping of false positive heterozygous variants at a combined depth, across the trio, of 200:

Heterozygotes by depth and quality: true versus false positive

The cutoff proposed by Heng was to calculate the average depth of called variants and set the cutoff as the average depth plus a multiplier of 3 or 4 times the square root of average depth. This dataset was an average depth of 169 for the trio, corresponding to a cutoff of 208 if we use the 3 multiplier, which compares nicely with a manual cutoff you’d set looking at the above graphs. Applying a cutoff of QUAL < 500 and DP > 208 produces a reduction in false positives with little impact on sensitivity:

Improvement in filtering false positives with high depth filter

A nice bonus of this filter is that it makes intuitive sense: variants with high depth and low quality indicate there is something problematic, and depth manages to partially compensate for the underlying issue. Inspired by GATK’s QualByDepth annotation and default filter of QD < 2.0, we incorporated a generalized version of this into bcbio-nextgen’s FreeBayes filter: QUAL < (depth-cutoff * 2.0) and DP > depth-cutoff.

GATK variant quality score recalibration (VQSR)

The other area where we needed to improve was using GATK Variant Quality Score Recalibration. The default parameters provide a set of calls that are overly conservative relative to the FreeBayes calls. VQSR provides the ability to tune the filtering so we experimented with multiple configurations to achieve approximately equal sensitivity relative to FreeBayes for both SNPs and Indels. The comparisons use the Genome in a Bottle reference callset for evaluation, and include VQSR default settings, multiple tranche levels and GATK’s suggested hard filters:

VQSR tuning: SNPs VQSR tuning: indels

While the sensitivity/specificity tradeoff depends on the research question, in trying to set a generally useful default we’d like to be less conservative than the GATK VQSR default. We learned these tips and tricks for tuning VQSR filtering:

  • The default setting for VQSR is not a tranche level (like 99.0), but rather a LOD score of 0. In this experiment, that corresponded to a tranche of ~99.0 for SNPs and ~98.0 for indels. The best-practice example documentation uses command line parameter that specify a consistent tranche of 99.0 for both SNPs and indels, so depending on which you follow as a default you’ll get different sensitivities.
  • To increase sensitivity, increase the tranche level. My expectations were that decreasing the tranche level would include more variants, but that actually applies additional filters. My suggestion for understanding tranche levels is that they specify the percentage of variants you want to capture; a tranche of 99.9% captures 99.9% of the true cases in the training set, while 99.0% captures less.
  • We found tranche settings of 99.97% for SNPs and 98.0% for indels correspond to roughly the sensitivity/specificity that you achieve with FreeBayes. These are the new default settings in bcbio-nextgen.
  • Using hard filtering of variants based on GATK recommendations performs well and is also a good default choice. For SNPs, the hard filter defaults are less conservative and more in line with FreeBayes results than VQSR defaults. VQSR has improved specificity at the same sensitivity and has the advantage of being configurable, but will require an extra tuning step.

Overall VQSR provides good filtering and the ability to tune sensitivity but requires validation work to select tranche cutoffs that are as sensitive as hard filter defaults, since default values tend to be overly conservative for SNP calling. In the absence of the ability or desire to tune VQSR tranche levels, the GATK hard filters provide a nice default without much of a loss in precision.

Data availability and future work

Thanks to continued community work on improving variant calling evaluations, this post demonstrates practical improvements in bcbio-nextgen variant calling. We welcome interested contributors to re-run and expand on the analysis, with full instructions in the bcbio-nextgen example pipeline documentation. Some of the output files from the analysis may also be useful:

  • VCF files for FreeBayes true positive and false positive heterozygote calls, used here to improve filtering via assessment of high depth regions. Heterozygotes make up the majority of false positive calls so take the most work to correctly filter and detect.
  • Shared false positives from FreeBayes and GATK HaplotypeCaller. These are potential missing variants in the Genome in a Bottle reference. Alternatively, they may represent persistent errors found in multiple callers.

We plan to continue to explore variant calling improvements in bcbio-nextgen. Our next steps are to use the trio population framework to compared pooled population calling versus the incremental joint discovery approach introduced in GATK 3. We’d also like to compare with single sample calling followed by subsequent squaring off/backfilling to assess the value of concurrent population calling. We welcome suggestions and thoughts on this work and future directions.

Written by Brad Chapman

May 12, 2014 at 6:03 am