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BMC Bioinformatics. 2009 Feb 3;10:45. doi: 10.1186/1471-2105-10-45.

Comparison of small n statistical tests of differential expression applied to microarrays.

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  • 1McGill University and Genome Quebec Innovation Centre, 740 Avenue du Docteur Penfield, Montreal, Quebec H3A1A4, Canada. carl.murie@mail.mcgill.ca



DNA microarrays provide data for genome wide patterns of expression between observation classes. Microarray studies often have small samples sizes, however, due to cost constraints or specimen availability. This can lead to poor random error estimates and inaccurate statistical tests of differential expression. We compare the performance of the standard t-test, fold change, and four small n statistical test methods designed to circumvent these problems. We report results of various normalization methods for empirical microarray data and of various random error models for simulated data.


Three Empirical Bayes methods (CyberT, BRB, and limma t-statistics) were the most effective statistical tests across simulated and both 2-colour cDNA and Affymetrix experimental data. The CyberT regularized t-statistic in particular was able to maintain expected false positive rates with simulated data showing high variances at low gene intensities, although at the cost of low true positive rates. The Local Pooled Error (LPE) test introduced a bias that lowered false positive rates below theoretically expected values and had lower power relative to the top performers. The standard two-sample t-test and fold change were also found to be sub-optimal for detecting differentially expressed genes. The generalized log transformation was shown to be beneficial in improving results with certain data sets, in particular high variance cDNA data.


Pre-processing of data influences performance and the proper combination of pre-processing and statistical testing is necessary for obtaining the best results. All three Empirical Bayes methods assessed in our study are good choices for statistical tests for small n microarray studies for both Affymetrix and cDNA data. Choice of method for a particular study will depend on software and normalization preferences.

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