Send to:

Choose Destination
See comment in PubMed Commons below
BMC Genomics. 2008 Oct 31;9:517. doi: 10.1186/1471-2164-9-517.

A new method to compute K-mer frequencies and its application to annotate large repetitive plant genomes.

Author information

  • 1Center for Bioinformatics, University of Hamburg, Bundesstrasse 43, 20146 Hamburg, Germany.



The challenges of accurate gene prediction and enumeration are further aggravated in large genomes that contain highly repetitive transposable elements (TEs). Yet TEs play a substantial role in genome evolution and are themselves an important subject of study. Repeat annotation, based on counting occurrences of k-mers, has been previously used to distinguish TEs from low-copy genic regions; but currently available software solutions are impractical due to high memory requirements or specialization for specific user-tasks.


Here we introduce the Tallymer software, a flexible and memory-efficient collection of programs for k-mer counting and indexing of large sequence sets. Unlike previous methods, Tallymer is based on enhanced suffix arrays. This gives a much larger flexibility concerning the choice of the k-mer size. Tallymer can process large data sizes of several billion bases. We used it in a variety of applications to study the genomes of maize and other plant species. In particular, Tallymer was used to index a set of whole genome shotgun sequences from maize (B73) (total size 109 bp.). We analyzed k-mer frequencies for a wide range of k. At this low genome coverage ( approximately 0.45x) highly repetitive 20-mers constituted 44% of the genome but represented only 1% of all possible k-mers. Similar low-complexity was seen in the repeat fractions of sorghum and rice. When applying our method to other maize data sets, High-C0t derived sequences showed the greatest enrichment for low-copy sequences. Among annotated TEs, the most highly repetitive were of the Ty3/gypsy class of retrotransposons, followed by the Ty1/copia class, and DNA transposons. Among expressed sequence tags (EST), a notable fraction contained high-copy k-mers, suggesting that transposons are still active in maize. Retrotransposons in Mo17 and McC cultivars were readily detected using the B73 20-mer frequency index, indicating their conservation despite extensive rearrangement across cultivars. Among one hundred annotated bacterial artificial chromosomes (BACs), k-mer frequency could be used to detect transposon-encoded genes with 92% sensitivity, compared to 96% using alignment-based repeat masking, while both methods showed 92% specificity.


The Tallymer software was effective in a variety of applications to aid genome annotation in maize, despite limitations imposed by the relatively low coverage of sequence available. For more information on the software, see

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article
PubMed Commons home

PubMed Commons

How to join PubMed Commons

    Supplemental Content

    Full text links

    Icon for BioMed Central Icon for PubMed Central
    Loading ...
    Write to the Help Desk