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PLoS Comput Biol. Mar 2007; 3(3): e39.
Published online Mar 23, 2007. doi:  10.1371/journal.pcbi.0030039
PMCID: PMC1829477

Discovering Motifs in Ranked Lists of DNA Sequences

Ernest Fraenkel, Editor


Computational methods for discovery of sequence elements that are enriched in a target set compared with a background set are fundamental in molecular biology research. One example is the discovery of transcription factor binding motifs that are inferred from ChIP–chip (chromatin immuno-precipitation on a microarray) measurements. Several major challenges in sequence motif discovery still require consideration: (i) the need for a principled approach to partitioning the data into target and background sets; (ii) the lack of rigorous models and of an exact p-value for measuring motif enrichment; (iii) the need for an appropriate framework for accounting for motif multiplicity; (iv) the tendency, in many of the existing methods, to report presumably significant motifs even when applied to randomly generated data. In this paper we present a statistical framework for discovering enriched sequence elements in ranked lists that resolves these four issues. We demonstrate the implementation of this framework in a software application, termed DRIM (discovery of rank imbalanced motifs), which identifies sequence motifs in lists of ranked DNA sequences. We applied DRIM to ChIP–chip and CpG methylation data and obtained the following results. (i) Identification of 50 novel putative transcription factor (TF) binding sites in yeast ChIP–chip data. The biological function of some of them was further investigated to gain new insights on transcription regulation networks in yeast. For example, our discoveries enable the elucidation of the network of the TF ARO80. Another finding concerns a systematic TF binding enhancement to sequences containing CA repeats. (ii) Discovery of novel motifs in human cancer CpG methylation data. Remarkably, most of these motifs are similar to DNA sequence elements bound by the Polycomb complex that promotes histone methylation. Our findings thus support a model in which histone methylation and CpG methylation are mechanistically linked. Overall, we demonstrate that the statistical framework embodied in the DRIM software tool is highly effective for identifying regulatory sequence elements in a variety of applications ranging from expression and ChIP–chip to CpG methylation data. DRIM is publicly available at http://bioinfo.cs.technion.ac.il/drim.

Author Summary

A computational problem with many applications in molecular biology is to identify short DNA sequence patterns (motifs) that are significantly overrepresented in a target set of genomic sequences relative to a background set of genomic sequences. One example is a target set that contains DNA sequences to which a specific transcription factor protein was experimentally measured as bound while the background set contains sequences to which the same transcription factor was not bound. Overrepresented sequence motifs in the target set may represent a subsequence that is molecularly recognized by the transcription factor. An inherent limitation of the above formulation of the problem lies in the fact that in many cases data cannot be clearly partitioned into distinct target and background sets in a biologically justified manner. We describe a statistical framework for discovering motifs in a list of genomic sequences that are ranked according to a biological parameter or measurement (e.g., transcription factor to sequence binding measurements). Our approach circumvents the need to partition the data into target and background sets using arbitrarily set parameters. The framework is implemented in a software tool called DRIM. The application of DRIM led to the identification of novel putative transcription factor binding sites in yeast and to the discovery of previously unknown motifs in CpG methylation regions in human cancer cell lines.

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