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Mol Syst Biol. 2007; 3: 78.
Published online 2007 Feb 13. doi:  10.1038/msb4100120
PMCID: PMC1828749

How to infer gene networks from expression profiles


Inferring, or ‘reverse-engineering', gene networks can be defined as the process of identifying gene interactions from experimental data through computational analysis. Gene expression data from microarrays are typically used for this purpose. Here we compared different reverse-engineering algorithms for which ready-to-use software was available and that had been tested on experimental data sets. We show that reverse-engineering algorithms are indeed able to correctly infer regulatory interactions among genes, at least when one performs perturbation experiments complying with the algorithm requirements. These algorithms are superior to classic clustering algorithms for the purpose of finding regulatory interactions among genes, and, although further improvements are needed, have reached a discreet performance for being practically useful.

Keywords: gene network, reverse-engineering, gene expression, transcriptional regulation, gene regulation


Gene expression microarrays yield quantitative and semi-quantitative data on the cell status in a specific condition and time. Molecular biology is rapidly evolving into a quantitative science, and as such, it is increasingly relying on engineering and physics to make sense of high-throughput data. The aim is to infer, or ‘reverse-engineer', from gene expression data, the regulatory interactions among genes using computational algorithms. There are two broad classes of reverse-engineering algorithms (Faith and Gardner, 2005): those based on the ‘physical interaction' approach that aim at identifying interactions among transcription factors and their target genes (gene-to-sequence interaction) and those based on the ‘influence interaction' approach that try to relate the expression of a gene to the expression of the other genes in the cell (gene-to-gene interaction), rather than relating it to sequence motifs found in its promoter (gene-to-sequence). We will refer to the ensemble of these ‘influence interactions' as gene networks.

The interaction between two genes in a gene network does not necessarily imply a physical interaction, but can also refer to an indirect regulation via proteins, metabolites and ncRNA that have not been measured directly. Influence interactions include physical interactions, if the two interacting partners are a transcription factor, and its target, or two proteins in the same complex. Generally, however, the meaning of influence interactions is not well defined and depends on the mathematical formalism used to model the network. Nonetheless, influence networks do have practical utility for (1) identifying functional modules, that is, identify the subset of genes that regulate each other with multiple (indirect) interactions, but have few regulations to other genes outside the subset; (2) predicting the behaviour of the system following perturbations, that is, gene network models can be used to predict the response of a network to an external perturbation and to identify the genes directly ‘hit' by the perturbation (di Bernardo et al, 2005), a situation often encountered in the drug discovery process, where one needs to identify the genes that are directly interacting with a compound of interest; (3) identifying real physical interactions by integrating the gene network with additional information from sequence data and other experimental data (i.e. chromatin immunoprecipitation, yeast two-hybrid assay, etc.).

In addition to reverse-engineering algorithms, network visualisation tools are available online to display the network surrounding a gene of interest by extracting information from the literature and experimental data sets, such as Cytoscape (Shannon et al, 2003) (http://www.cytoscape.org/features.php) and Osprey (Breitkreutz et al, 2003) (http://biodata.mshri.on.ca/osprey/servlet/Index).

Here we will focus on gene network inference algorithms (the influence approach). A description of other methods based on the physical approach and more details on computational aspects can be found in (Beer and Tavazoie, 2004; Tadesse et al, 2004; Faith and Gardner, 2005; Prakash and Tompa, 2005; Ambesi and di Bernardo, 2006; Foat et al, 2006). We will also briefly describe two ‘improper' reverse-engineering tools (MNI and TSNI), whose main focus is not inferring interactions among genes from gene expression data, but rather identification of the targets of the perturbation (point (2) above).

Among the plethora of algorithms proposed in the literature to solve the network inference problem, we selected one algorithm for each class of mathematical formalism proposed in the literature, for which ready-to-use software is available and that had been tested on experimental data sets.

Gene network inference algorithms

We will indicate the gene expression measurement of gene i with the variable xi, the set of expression measurements for all the genes with D and the interaction between genes i and j with aij. D may consist of time-series gene expression data of N genes in M time points (i.e. gene expression changing dynamically with time), or measurements taken at steady-state in M different conditions (i.e. gene expression levels in homeostasis). Some inference algorithms can work on both kind of data, whereas others have been specifically designed to analyse one or the other.

Depending on the inference algorithm used, the resulting gene network can be either an undirected graph, that is, the direction of the interaction is not specified (aij=aji), or a directed graph specifying the direction of the interaction, that is, gene j regulates gene i (and not vice versa) (aijaji). A directed graph can also be labeled with a sign and strength for each interaction, signed directed graph, where aij has a positive, zero or negative value indicating activation, no interaction and repression, respectively.

An overview of softwares described here is given in Figure 1 and Table I.

Figure 1
Flowchart to choose the most suitable network inference algorithms according to the problem to be addressed. (*): check for independence of time points (see text for details); (BN): Bayesian networks; (DBN): Dynamic Bayesian Networks.
Table 1
Features of the network inference algorithms reviewed in this tutorial

Coexpression networks and clustering algorithms

Clustering, although not properly a network inference algorithm, is the current method of choice to visualise and analyse gene expression data. Clustering is based on the idea of grouping genes with similar expression profiles in clusters (Eisen et al, 1998). Similarity is measured by a distance metric, as for example the correlation coefficient among a pair of genes. The number of clusters can be set either automatically or by the user depending on the clustering algorithm used (Eisen et al, 1998; Amato et al, 2006). The rationale behind clustering is that coexpressed genes (i.e. genes in the same cluster) have a good probability of being functionally related (Eisen et al, 1998). This does not imply, however, that there is a direct interaction among the coexpressed genes, as genes separated by one or more intermediaries (indirect relationships) may be highly coexpressed. It is therefore important to understand what can be gained by advanced gene network inference algorithms, whose aim is to infer direct interactions among genes, as compared with ‘simple' clustering, for the purpose of gene network inference.

The most common clustering approach is hierarchical clustering (Eisen et al, 1998), where relationships among genes are represented by a tree whose branch lengths reflect the degree of similarity between genes, as assessed by a pairwise similarity function such as Pearson correlation coefficient:

equation image

For a set of n profiles, all the pairwise correlation coefficients rij are computed; the highest value (representing the most similar pair of genes) is selected and a node in the tree is created for this gene pair with a new expression profile given by the average of the two profiles. The process is repeated by replacing the two genes with a single node, and all pairwise correlations among the n−1 profiles (i.e. n−2 profiles from single genes plus 1 of the gene pair) are computed. The process stops when only one element remains. Clusters are obtained by cutting the tree at a specified branch level.

In order to compare clustering to the other network inference strategies, we assumed that genes in the same clusters regulate each other, that is, each gene represents a node in the network and is connected to all the other genes in the same cluster. Clustering will thus recover an undirected graph.

Bayesian networks

A Bayesian network is a graphical model for probabilistic relationships among a set of random variables Xi, where i=1 … n. These relationships are encoded in the structure of a directed acyclic graph G, whose vertices (or nodes) are the random variables Xi. The relationships between the variables are described by a joint probability distribution P(X1, … , Xn) that is consistent with the independence assertions embedded in the graph G and has the form:

equation image

where the p+1 genes, on which the probability is conditioned, are called the parents of gene i and represent its regulators, and the joint probability density is expressed as a product of conditional probabilities by applying the chain rule of probabilities and independence. This rule is based on the Bayes theorem: An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is msb4100120-i3.jpg

We observe that the JPD (joint probability distribution) can be decomposed as the product of conditional probabilities as in Equation 2 only if the Markov assumption holds, that is, each variable Xi is independent of its non-descendants, given its parent in the directed acyclic graph G. A schematic overview of the theory underlying Bayesian networks is given in Figure 2.

Figure 2
Bayesian networks: A is conditionally independent of D and E given B and C; information-theoretic networks: mutual information is 0 for statistically independent variables, and Data Processing Inequality helps pruning the network; ordinary differential ...

In order to reverse-engineer a Bayesian network model of a gene network, we must find the directed acyclic graph G (i.e. the regulators of each transcript) that best describes the gene expression data D, where D is assumed to be a steady-state data set. This is performed by choosing a scoring function that evaluates each graph G (i.e. a possible network topology) with respect to the gene expression data D, and then searching for the graph G that maximises the score.

The score can be defined using the Bayes rule:An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is msb4100120-i4.jpg, where P(G) can either contain some a priori knowledge on network structure, if available, or can be a constant non-informative prior, and P(D/G) is a function, to be chosen by the algorithm that evaluates the probability that the data D has been generated by the the graph G. The most popular scores are the Bayesian Information Criteria (BIC) or Bayesian Dirichlet equivalence (BDe). Both scores incorporate a penalty for complexity to guard against overfitting of data.

Trying out all possible combinations of interaction among genes, that is, all possible graphs G, and choosing the G with the maximum Bayesian score is an NP-hard problem. Therefore, a heuristic search method is used, like the greedy-hill climbing approach, the Markov Chain Monte Carlo method or simulated annealing.

In Bayesian networks, the learning problem is usually underdetermined and several high-scoring networks are found. To address this problem, one can use model averaging or bootstrapping to select the most probable regulatory interactions and to obtain confidence estimates for the interactions. For example, if a particular interaction between two transcripts repeatedly occurs in high-scoring models, one gains confidence that this edge is a true dependency. Alternatively, one can augment an incomplete data set with prior information to help select the most likely model structure. Bayesian networks cannot contain cycles(i.e. no feedback loops). This restriction is the principal limitation of the Bayesian network models. Dynamic Bayesian networks overcome this limitation. Dynamic Bayesian networks are an extension of Bayesian networks able to infer interactions from a data set D consisting of time-series rather than steady-state data. We refer the reader to (Yu et al, 2004).

A word of caution: Bayesian networks model probabilistic dependencies among variables and not causality, that is, the parents of a node are not necessarily also the direct causes of its behaviour. However, we can interpret the edge as a causal link if we assume that the Causal Markov Condition holds. This can be stated simply as: a variable X is independent of every other variable (except the targets of X) conditional on all its direct causes. It is not known whether this assumption is a good approximation of what happens in real biological networks.

For more information and a detailed study of Bayesian networks for gene network inference, we refer the reader to Pe'er et al (2000).


Banjo is a gene network inference software that has been developed by the group of Hartemink (Yu et al, 2004). Banjo is based on Bayesian networks formalism and implements both Bayesian and Dynamic Bayesian networks. Therefore it can infer gene networks from steady-state gene expression data or from time-series gene expression data.

In Banjo, heuristic approaches are used to search the ‘network space' to find the network graph G (Proposer/Searcher module in Banjo). For each network structure explored, the parameters of the conditional probability density distribution are inferred and an overall network's score is computed using the BDe metric in Banjo's Evaluator module. The output network will be the one with the best score (Banjo's Decider module).

Banjo outputs a signed directed graph indicating regulation among genes. Banjo can analyse both steady-state and time-series data. In the case of steady-state data, Banjo, as well as the other Bayesian networks algorithms, is not able to infer networks involving cycles (e.g. feedback or feed forward loops).

Other Bayesian network inference algorithms for which software is available have been proposed (Friedman and Elidan, 2004; Murphy, 2001).

Information-theoretic approaches

Information-theoretic approaches use a generalisation of pairwise correlation coefficient in equation (1), called Mutual Information (MI), to compare expression profiles from a set of microarrays. For each pair of genes, their MIij is computed and the edge aij=aji is set to 0 or 1 depending on a significance threshold to which MIij is compared. MI can be used to measure the degree of independence between two genes.

Mutual information, MIij, between gene i and gene j is computed as:

equation image

where H, the entropy, is defined as:

equation image

The entropy Hi has many interesting properties; specifically, it reaches a maximum for uniformly distributed variables, that is, the higher the entropy, the more randomly distributed are gene expression levels across the experiments. From the definition, it follows that MI becomes zero if the two variables xi and xj are statistically independent (P(xixj)=P(xi)P(xj)), as their joint entropy Hij=Hi+Hj. A higher MI indicates that the two genes are non-randomly associated to each other. It can be easily shown that MI is symmetric, Mij=Mji, therefore the network is described by an undirected graph G, thus differing from Bayesian networks (directed acyclic graph).

MI is more general than the Pearson correlation coefficient. This quantifies only linear dependencies between variables, and a vanishing Pearson correlation does not imply that two variables are statistically independent. In practical application, however, MI and Pearson correlation may yield almost identical results (Steuer et al, 2002).

The definition of MI in equation (3) requires each data point, that is, each experiment, to be statistically independent from the others. Thus information-theoretic approaches, as described here, can deal with steady-state gene expression data set, or with time-series data as long as the sampling time is long enough to assume that each point is independent of the previous points.

Edges in networks derived by information-theoretic approaches represent statistical dependences among gene-expression profiles. As in the case of Bayesian network, the edge does not represent a direct causal interaction between two genes, but only a statistical dependency. A ‘leap of faith' must be performed in order to interpret the edge as a direct causal interaction.

It is possible to derive the information-theoretic approach as a method to approximate the JPD of gene expression profiles, as it is performed for Bayesian networks. We refer the interested readers to Margolin et al (2006).


ARACNE (Basso et al, 2005; Margolin et al, 2006) belongs to the family of information-theoretic approaches to gene network inference first proposed by Butte and Kohane (2000) with their relevance network algorithm.

ARACNE computes Mij for all pairs of genes i and j in the data set. Mij is estimated using the method of Gaussian kernel density (Steuer et al, 2002). Once Mij for all gene pairs has been computed, ARACNE excludes all the pairs for which the null hypothesis of mutually independent genes cannot be ruled out (Ho: MIij=0). A P-value for the null hypothesis, computed using Montecarlo simulations, is associated to each value of the mutual information. The final step of this algorithm is a pruning step that tries to reduce the number of false-positive (i.e. inferred interactions among two genes that are not direct causal interaction in the real biological pathway). They use the Data Processing Inequality (DPI) principle that asserts that if both (i,j) and (j,k) are directly interacting, and (i,k) is indirectly interacting through j, then Mi, kmin(Mij, Mjk). This condition is necessary but not sufficient, that is, the inequality can be satisfied even if (i, k) are directly interacting. Therefore the authors acknowledge that by applying this pruning step using DPI they may be discarding some direct interactions as well.

Ordinary differential equations

Reverse-engineering algorithms based on ordinary differential equations (ODEs) relate changes in gene transcript concentration to each other and to an external perturbation. By external perturbation, we mean an experimental treatment that can alter the transcription rate of the genes in the cell. An example of perturbation is the treatment with a chemical compound (i.e. a drug), or a genetic perturbation involving overexpression or downregulation of particular genes.

This is a deterministic approach not based on the estimation of conditional probabilities, unlike Bayesian networks and information-theoretic approaches. A set of ODEs, one for each gene, describes gene regulation as a function of other genes:

equation image

where θi is a set of parameters describing interactions among genes (the edges of the graph), i=1 … N, xi(t) is the concentration of transcript i measured at time t, An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is msb4100120-i8.jpg is the rate of transcription of transcript i, N is the number of genes and u is an external perturbation to the system.

As ODEs are deterministic, the interactions among genes (θi) represent causal interactions, and not statistical dependencies as the other methods.

To reverse-engineer a network using ODEs means to choose a functional form for fi and then to estimate the unknown parameters θi for each i from the gene expression data D using some optimisation technique.

The ODE-based approaches yield signed directed graphs and can be applied to both steady-state and time-series expression profiles. Another advantage of ODE approaches is that once the parameters θi, for all i are known, equation (5) can be used to predict the behaviour of the network in different conditions (i.e. gene knockout, treatment with an external agent, etc.).


In recent studies (Gardner et al, 2003; di Bernardo et al, 2005; Bansal et al, 2006), ODE-based algorithms have been developed (Network identification by multiple regression (NIR) and microarray network identifcation (MNI)) that use a series of steady-state RNA expression measurements, or time-series measurements (time-series network identification—TSNI) following transcriptional perturbations, to reconstruct gene–gene interactions and to identify the mediators of the activity of a drug. Other algorithms based on ODEs have been proposed in the literature (D'haeseleer et al, 1999; Tegner et al, 2003; Bonneau et al, 2006; van Someren et al, 2006).

The network is described as a system of linear ODEs (de Jong, 2002) representing the rate of synthesis of a transcript as a function of the concentrations of every other transcript in a cell, and the external perturbation:

equation image

where i=1 ,…, N; k=1 … M, N is the number of genes, M is the number of time points, [xdot]i(tk) is the concentration of transcript i measured at time tk, [xdot]i(tk) is the rate of change of concentration of gene i at time tk, that is, the first derivative of the mRNA concentration of gene i measured at time tk, aij represents the influence of gene j on gene i, bi represents the effect of the external pertrurbation on xi and u(tk) represents the external perturbation at time tk (aij and bi are the θ in equation (5)).

In the case of steady-state data, [xdot]i(tk)=0 and equation (6) for gene i becomes independent of time and can be simplified and rewritten in the form of a linear regression:

equation image

The NIR algorithm (Gardner et al, 2003) computes the edges aij from steady-state gene expression data using equation (7). NIR needs, as input, the gene expression profiles following each perturbation experiment (xj), knowledge of which genes have been directly perturbed in each perturbation experiment (biu) and optionally, the standard deviation of replicate measurements. NIR is based on a network sparsity assumption, that is, a maximum number of ingoing edges per gene (i.e. maximum number of regulators per gene), which can be chosen by the user. The output is in matrix format, where each element is the edge aij. The inference algorithm reduces to solving equation (7) for the unknown parameters aij, that is, a classic linear-regression problem.

The MNI algorithm (di Bernardo et al, 2005) is based on equation (7) as well, and uses steady-state data like NIR, but importantly, each microarray experiment can result from any kind of perturbation, that is, we do not require knowledge of biu. MNI is different from other inference methods as the inferred network is used not per se but to filter the gene expression profile following a treatment with a compound to determine pathways and genes directly targeted by the compound. This is achieved in two steps. In the first step, the parameters aij are obtained from gene expression data D; in the second step, the gene expression profile following compound treatment is measured (xid with i=1 … N), and equation (7) is used to compute the values biu for each i, as aij is known and u is simply a constant representing the treatment. bi different from 0 represents the genes that are directly hit by the compound. The output is a ranked list of genes; genes at the top of the list are the most likely targets of the compound (i.e. the ones with the highest value of bi).

The network inferred by MNI could be used per se, and not only as a filter; however, if we do not have any knowledge about which genes have been perturbed directly in each perturbation experiment in dataset D (right-hand side in equation (7)), then, differently from NIR, the solution to equation (7) is not unique, and we can only infer one out of many possible networks that can explain the data. What remains unique are the predictions (bi), that is, all the possible networks predict the same bi.

MNI performance is not tested here, not being a ‘proper' network inference algorithm, but we refer the interested readers to di Bernardo et al (2005), where the performance is tested in detail.

The TSNI (Time Series Network Identification) algorithm (Bansal et al, 2006) identifies the gene network (aij) as well as the direct targets of the perturbations (bi). TSNI is based on equation (6) and is applied when gene expression data are dynamic (time-series). To solve equation (6), we need the values of [xdot]i(tk) for each gene i and each time point k. This can be estimated directly from the time-series of gene expression profiles. TSNI assumes that a single perturbation experiment is performed (e.g. treatment with a compound, gene overexpression, etc.) and M time points following the perturbation are measured (rather than M different conditions at steady-state as for NIR and MNI). For small networks (tens of genes), it is able to correctly infer the network structure (i.e. aij). For large networks (hundreds of genes), its performance is best for predicting the direct targets of a perturbation (i.e. bi) (for example, finding the direct targets of a transcription factor from gene expression time series following overexpression of the factor). TSNI is not tested here, but we refer the reader to Bansal et al (2006).

Reverse-engineering algorithm performance

We performed a comparison using ‘fake' gene expression data generated by a computer model of gene regulation (‘in silico' data). The need of simulated data arises from imperfect knowledge of real networks in cells, from the lack of suitable gene expression data set and of control on the noise levels. In silico data enable one to check the performance of algorithms against a perfectly known ground truth (simulated networks in the computer model).

To simulate gene expression data and gene regulation in the form of a network, we use linear ODEs relating the changes in gene transcript concentration to each other and to the external perturbations. Linear ODEs can simulate gene networks as directed signed graphs with realistic dynamics and generate both steady-state and time-series gene expression profiles. Linear ODEs are generic, as any non-linear process can be approximated to a linear process, as long as the system is not far from equilibrium, whereas non-linear processes are all different from each other. There are many other choices possible (Brazhnik et al, 2003), but we valued the capability of linear ODEs of quickly generating many random networks with realistic behaviour and the availability of a general mathematical theory.

We generated 20 random networks with 10, 100 and 1000 genes and with an average in-degree per gene of 2, 10 and 100, respectively. For each network we generated three kinds of data: steady-state-simulated microarray data resulting from M global perturbations (i.e. all the genes in the network are perturbed simultaneously in each perturbation experiment); steady-state data resulting from M local perturbations (i.e. a different single gene in the network is perturbed in each experiment) and dynamic time-series-simulated microarray data resulting from perturbing 10% of the genes simultaneously and measuring M time points following the perturbation experiment. For all data sets, M was chosen equal to 10, 100 and 1000 experiments. Noise was then added to all data sets by summing to each simulated gene expression level in the data set, white noise with zero mean and standard deviation equal to 0.1 multiplied by the absolute value of the simulated gene expression level (Gardner et al, 2003).

All the algorithms were run on all the data sets using default parameters (Supplementary Table 1). Banjo was not run on the 1000 gene data set, as it was crashing owing to memory limitations, whereas NIR needed an excessively long computation time.

Results from the simulations are described in Table II. PPV stands for positive predictive value (or accuracy) defined as TP/(TP+FP) and Sensitivity (Se) is TP/(TP+FN), where TP, true positive; FP, false positive and FN, false negative. The label ‘Random' refers to the expected performance of an algorithm that selects a pair of genes randomly and ‘infers' an edge between them. For example, for a fully connected network, the random algorithm would have a 100% accuracy for all the levels of sensitivity (as any pair of genes is connected in the real network). Some algorithms infer the network just as an undirected graph, and others as a directed and/or signed graph. Thus, in order to facilitate comparison among algorithms, we computed PPV and Se by first transforming the real (signed directed graph) and the inferred networks (when directed and/or signed) in an undirected graph (labeled u in the table). If the algorithm infers a directed graph and/or a signed directed graph, we also compared PPV and Se in this case (labeled d and s, respectively, in the table). When computing PPV and Se we did not include self-feedback loops (diagonal elements of the adjacency matrix), as all the simulated networks have self-feedback loops, and this could be an advantage for some algorithms as NIR that always recovers a network with self-feedbacks.

Table 2
Results of the application of network inference algorithms on the simulated data set

We observe that for the ‘global' perturbation data set, all the algorithms, but Banjo, (Bayesian networks) fail, as their performance is comparable with the random algorithm (hence the importance of reporting always the random performance). Banjo performance is poor when only 10 experiments are available, and reaches a very good accuracy for 100 experiments (independently of the number of genes), albeit with a very low sensitivity (only few edges are found). The performance of all the algorithms, but Banjo, improves dramatically for the ‘local' data set. In this case, both ARACNE and NIR perform very well, whereas Banjo performance is still random for 10 experiments, whereas it reaches a very good accuracy but poor sensitivity for the 100 experiments set. Clustering is better than random, but is clearly not a good method to infer gene networks. Performance is again random for the time-series ‘dynamic' data set. In this case we run ARACNE as well, although the time points cannot be assumed independent from each other. Banjo has been shown to work on dynamic data, but needs a very high number of experiments (time points) as compared with the number of genes (Yu et al, 2004).

In the ‘local' data set, most of the algorithms perform better than random: Banjo recovers only a few of the hundreds of real interactions (low sensitivity and high accuracy), ARACNE recovers about half of the real connections in the network (good sensitivity and good accuracy), NIR instead recovers almost all of the real interactions (high sensitivity and high accuracy), clustering recovers a fifth of the real connections but with low accuracy, and most of the connections recovered by clustering are found by ARACNE as well.

It is interesting to ask what is the average overlap between the inferred networks for the different algorithms. Supplementary Figure 1 shows an example of a 10-gene network recovered by each of the four algorithms.

We intersected the networks inferred by all the algorithms and found that for the 10-gene network ‘local' dataset, on average about 10% of the edges overlap across all the four algorithms, whereas about 0.01% overlap for the 100-gene network ‘local' dataset (Supplementary Table 2). This is due to the fact that Banjo for the 100-gene network dataset recovers very few connections compared with the other algorithms, thus the intersection has very few edges in this case; excluding Banjo when computing the intersection rescues the intersection overlap to about 10% (Supplementary Table 2).

We then checked the PPV and Se by considering only the edges that were found by all the algorithms, if any, as reported in Supplementary Table 2. As expected, Se decreased, but the PPV improved only slightly compared with that of each algorithm considered separately. In addition, for large networks (100 genes), the intersection among the networks exists only 35% of the time, whereas for small networks (10 genes), it exists 95% of the time.

The performance of each algorithm can be further improved by modifying their parameters (refer to Supplementary Table 3). The ARACNE parameter DPI (threshold for data processing inequality) varies from 0 to 1 and controls the pruning of the triplets in the network (1, no pruning and 0, each triplet is broken at the weakest edge). We found a DPI=0.15 to be a conservative threshold giving a good compromise between Se and PPV (Supplementary Table 3). Another parameter is the threshold on the MI. Increasing these parameters allows one to improve the PPV at the cost of reducing the Se. The MI level can also be chosen automatically by ARACNE, which does a fairly good job; so we suggest not to set the MI threshold manually.

Banjo gives the user a variety of choices for its parameters: the running time can be increased but it does not seem to affect the results much (Supplementary Table 3); so we suggest 60 s for 10-gene networks and 600 s for 100-gene networks; the Proposer and Searcher modules, which scan and score the network topology to find the best directed acyclic graph, can be chosen from a set of four different algorithms; on our data sets, the different choices did not affect the results considerably.

The NIR algorithm performance can be affected by varying the parameter k, which defines the average in-degree per node (i.e. each gene can be regulated at most by other k genes). The lower the k, the higher the PPV at the cost of reducing the Se. The performance of NIR on the simulated data sets is biased as NIR is based on linear ODEs, which are also used to generate the ‘fake' simulated gene expression data; however, as noise is added to the simulated data the reported performance should not be too far from the true one. NIR seems to perform better than the other algorithms, but it also requires more information, that is, the genes that have been directly perturbed in each microarray experiment (for example, which gene has been knocked-out, etc.).

Application to experimental data

In order to test different softwares, we also collected the experimental data sets described in Table III and included in the Supplementary material. The microarray data to be given as input to the algorithms need no specific pre-processing, just normalisation and selection of the genes that have responded significantly to the perturbation experiments, using standard techniques. We chose three different organisms and data sets of different sizes: two large data sets (A and B), two medium data sets (C and D) and two small data sets (E and F). We tested each algorithm on the largest number of data sets possible. In each case we used default parameters. Banjo could not run on data set A and B owing to the large size of the dataset. NIR can be applied only to dataset E, as it requires steady-state experiments and knowledge of the perturbed gene in each experiment. Hierarchical clustering was applied to all data sets.

Table 3
Experimental data sets used as examples

Table IV summarises the results but it should not be used for comparative purposes between the different algorithms, owing to the limited number of data and to the imperfect knowledge of the real network. In silico analysis performed in the previous section is better suited for this task.

Table 4
Results of the application of network inference algorithms on the experiment data sets

ARACNE performs well on datasets A and C, whereas the other algorithms are not significantly better than random. ARACNE is not better than random for data set B and better than random for dataset D, whereas Banjo is considerably better than random for data set D, albeit with very low sensitivity, in line with the in silico results. For the same dataset, D, clustering performs better than random, with a lower accuracy than Banjo, but a better sensitivity. The overall low performance on dataset B, as compared with the other data sets, is probably due either to higher noise levels in this dataset or to imperfect knowledge of the real network (transcription network in yeast).

Data sets E and F are not very informative since the real networks are small and densely connected and therefore the random algorithm performs very well. In any case, only NIR performs significantly better than random for dataset E, and only clustering does significantly better than random for dataset F.

Discussion and conclusions

In silico analysis gives reliable guidelines on algorithms' performance in line with the results obtained on real data sets: ARACNE performs well for steady-state data and can be applied also when few experiments are available, as compared with the number of genes, but it is not suited for the analysis of short time-series data. This is to be expected owing to the requirement of statistically independent experiments. Banjo is very accurate, but with a very low sensitivity, on steady-state data when more than 100 different perturbation experiments are available, independently of the number of genes, whereas it fails for time-series data. Banjo (and Bayesian networks in general) is a probabilistic algorithm requiring the estimation of probability density distributions, a task that requires large number of data points. NIR works very well for steady-state data, also when few experiments are available, but requires knowledge on the genes that have been perturbed directly in each perturbation experiment. NIR is a deterministic algorithm, and if the noise on the data is small, it does not require large data sets, as it is based on linear regression. Clustering, although not a reverse-engineering algorithm, can give some information on the network structure when a large number of experiments is available, as confirmed by both in silico and experimental analysis, albeit with a much lower accuracy than the other reverse-engineering algorithms.

The different reverse-engineering methods considered here infer networks that overlap for about 10% of the edges for small networks, and even less for larger networks. Interestingly, if all algorithms agree on an interaction between two genes (an edge in the network), this interaction is not more likely to be true than the ones inferred by a single algorithm. Therefore it is not a good idea to ‘trust' an interaction more just because more than one reverse-engineering algorithm finds it. Indeed, the different mathematical models used by the reverse-engineering algorithms have complementary abilities, for example ARACNE may correctly infer an interaction that NIR does not find and vice versa; hence in the intersection of the two algorithms, both edges will disappear causing a drop in sensitivity without any gain in accuracy (PPV). Taking the union of the interactions found by all the algorithms is not a good option, as this will cause a large drop in accuracy. This observation leads us to conclude that it should be possible to develop better approaches by subdividing the microarray dataset in smaller subsets and then by applying the most appropriate algorithm to each microarray subset. How to choose the subsets and how to decide which is the best algorithm to use are still open questions.

A general consideration is that the nature of experiments performed in order to perturb the cells and measure gene expression profiles can make the task of inference easier (or harder). From our results, ‘local' perturbation experiments, that is, single gene overexpression or knockdown, seem to be much more informative than ‘global' perturbation experiments, that is, overexpressing tens of genes simultaneously or submitting the cells to a strong shock.

Time-series data allow one to investigate the dynamics of activation (inhibition) of genes in response to a specific perturbation. These data can be useful to infer the direct molecular mediators (targets) of the perturbation in the cell (Bansal et al, 2006), but trying to infer the network among all the genes responding to the perturbation from time-series data does not yield acceptable results. Reverse-engineering algorithms using time-series data need to be improved. One of the reasons for the poor performance of time-series reverse-engineering algorithms is the smaller amount of information contained in time-series data when compared with steady-state data. Time-series are usually measured following the perturbation of one or few genes in the cell, whereas steady-state data are obtained by performing multiple perturbations to the cell, thus eliciting a richer response. One way to improve performance in the time-series case is to perform more than one time-series experiment by perturbing different genes each time, but this may be expensive; another solution could be to perform only one perturbation experiment but with a richer dynamics, for example the perturbed gene should be overexpressed and then allowed to return to its endogenous level, while measuring gene expression changes of the other genes. Richer dynamics in the perturbation will yield richer dynamics in the response and thus more informative data.

Gene network inference algorithms are becoming accurate enough to be practically useful, at least when steady-state gene expression data are available, but efforts must be directed in assessing algorithm performances. In a few years, gene network inference will become as common as clustering for microarray data analysis. These algorithms will become more ‘integrative' by exploiting, in addition to expression profiles, protein–protein interaction data, sequence data, protein modification data, metabolic data and more, in the inference process (Workman et al, 2006).

Supplementary Material

Supplementary Table 1

Supplementary Table 2

Supplementary Table 3

Supplementary Figure 1

Data Sets 1 - simulated and experimental data for 10 and 100 gene networks


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