Graph-based methods for large-scale protein classification and orthology inference

A. Kuzniar

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


The quest for understanding how proteins evolve and function has been a prominent and costly human endeavor. With advances in genomics and use of bioinformatics tools, the diversity of proteins in present day genomes can now be studied more efficiently than ever before. This thesis describes computational methods suitable for large-scale protein classification of many proteomes of diverse species. Specifically, we focus on methods that combine unsupervised learning (clustering) techniques with the knowledge of molecular phylogenetics, particularly that of orthology. In chapter 1 we introduce the biological context of protein structure, function and evolution, review the state-of-the-art sequence-based protein classification methods, and then describe methods used to validate the predictions. Finally, we present the outline and objectives of this thesis. Evolutionary (phylogenetic) concepts are instrumental in studying subjects as diverse as the diversity of genomes, cellular networks, protein structures and functions, and functional genome annotation. In particular, the detection of orthologous proteins (genes) across genomes provides reliable means to infer biological functions and processes from one organism to another. Chapter 2 evaluates the available computational tools, such as algorithms and databases, used to infer orthologous relationships between genes from fully sequenced genomes. We discuss the main caveats of large-scale orthology detection in general as well as the merits and pitfalls of each method in particular. We argue that establishing true orthologous relationships requires a phylogenetic approach which combines both trees and graphs (networks), reliable species phylogeny, genomic data for more than two species, and an insight into the processes of molecular evolution. Also proposed is a set of guidelines to aid researchers in selecting the correct tool. Moreover, this review motivates further research in developing reliable and scalable methods for functional and phylogenetic classification of large protein collections. Chapter 3 proposes a framework in which various protein knowledge-bases are combined into unique network of mappings (links), and hence allows comparisons to be made between expert curated and fully-automated protein classifications from a single entry point. We developed an integrated annotation
resource for protein orthology, ProGMap (Protein Group Mappings,, to help researchers and database annotators who often need to assess the coherence of proposed annotations and/or group assignments, as well as users of high throughput methodologies (e.g., microarrays or proteomics) who deal with partially annotated genomic data. ProGMap is based on a non-redundant dataset of over 6.6 million protein sequences which is mapped to 240,000 protein group descriptions collected from UniProt, RefSeq, Ensembl, COG, KOG, OrthoMCL-DB, HomoloGene, TRIBES and PIRSF using a fast and fully automated sequence-based mapping approach. The ProGMap database is equipped with a web interface that enables queries to be made using synonymous sequence identifiers, gene symbols, protein functions, and amino acid or nucleotide sequences. It incorporates also services, namely BLAST similarity search and QuickMatch identity search, for finding sequences similar (or identical) to a query sequence, and tools for presenting the results in graphic form. Graphs (networks) have gained an increasing attention in contemporary biology because they have enabled complex biological systems and processes to be modeled and better understood. For example, protein similarity networks constructed of all-versus-all sequence comparisons are frequently used to delineate similarity groups, such as protein families or orthologous groups in comparative genomics studies. Chapter 4.1 presents a benchmark study of freely available graph software used for this purpose. Specifically, the computational complexity of the programs is investigated using both simulated and biological networks. We show that most available software is not suitable for large networks, such as those encountered in large-scale proteome analyzes, because of the high demands on computational resources. To address this, we developed a fast and memory-efficient graph software, netclust (, which can scale to large protein networks, such as those constructed of millions of proteins and sequence similarities, on a standard computer. An extended version of this program called Multi-netclust is presented in chapter 4.2. This tool that can find connected clusters of data presented by different network data sets. It uses user-defined threshold values to combine the data sets in such a way that clusters connected in all or in either of the networks can be retrieved efficiently. Automated protein sequence clustering is an important task in genome annotation projects and phylogenomic studies. During the past years, several protein clustering programs have been developed for delineating protein families or orthologous groups from large sequence collections. However, most of these programs have not been benchmarked systematically, in particular with respect to the trade-off between computational complexity and biological soundness. In chapter 5 we evaluate three best known algorithms on different protein similarity networks and validation (or 'gold' standard) data sets to find out which one can scale to hundreds of proteomes and still delineate high quality similarity groups at the minimum computational cost. For this, a reliable partition-based approach was used to assess the biological soundness of predicted groups using known protein functions, manually curated protein/domain families and orthologous groups available in expert-curated databases. Our benchmark results support the view that a simple and computationally cheap method such as netclust can perform similar to and in cases even better than more sophisticated, yet much more costly methods. Moreover, we introduce an efficient graph-based method that can delineate protein orthologs of hundreds of proteomes into hierarchical similarity groups de novo. The validity of this method is demonstrated on data obtained from 347 prokaryotic proteomes. The resulting hierarchical protein classification is not only in agreement with manually curated classifications but also provides an enriched framework in which the functional and evolutionary relationships between proteins can be studied at various levels of specificity. Finally, in chapter 6 we summarize the main findings and discuss the merits and shortcomings of the methods developed herein. We also propose directions for future research. The ever increasing flood of new sequence data makes it clear that we need improved tools to be able to handle and extract relevant (orthological) information from these protein data. This thesis summarizes these needs and how they can be addressed by the available tools, or be improved by the new tools that were developed in the course of this research.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Leunissen, Jack, Promotor
  • van Ham, Roeland, Co-promotor
  • Pongor, S., Co-promotor, External person
Award date6 Nov 2009
Place of Publication[S.l.
Print ISBNs9789085855019
Publication statusPublished - 2009


  • bioinformatics
  • proteins
  • classification
  • algorithms
  • graphs
  • evolution

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