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BMC Bioinformatics. 2009 Jan 30;10 Suppl 1:S65. doi: 10.1186/1471-2105-10-S1-S65.

A random forest approach to the detection of epistatic interactions in case-control studies.

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  • 1MOE Key Laboratory of Bioinformatics and Bioinformatics Division, TNLIST/Department of Automation, Tsinghua University, Beijing 100084, PR China.



The key roles of epistatic interactions between multiple genetic variants in the pathogenesis of complex diseases notwithstanding, the detection of such interactions remains a great challenge in genome-wide association studies. Although some existing multi-locus approaches have shown their successes in small-scale case-control data, the "combination explosion" course prohibits their applications to genome-wide analysis. It is therefore indispensable to develop new methods that are able to reduce the search space for epistatic interactions from an astronomic number of all possible combinations of genetic variants to a manageable set of candidates.


We studied case-control data from the viewpoint of binary classification. More precisely, we treated single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) markers as categorical features and adopted the random forest to discriminate cases against controls. On the basis of the gini importance given by the random forest, we designed a sliding window sequential forward feature selection (SWSFS) algorithm to select a small set of candidate SNPs that could minimize the classification error and then statistically tested up to three-way interactions of the candidates. We compared this approach with three existing methods on three simulated disease models and showed that our approach is comparable to, sometimes more powerful than, the other methods. We applied our approach to a genome-wide case-control dataset for Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD) and successfully identified two SNPs that were reported to be associated with this disease.


Besides existing pure statistical approaches, we demonstrated the feasibility of incorporating machine learning methods into genome-wide case-control studies. The gini importance offers yet another measure for the associations between SNPs and complex diseases, thereby complementing existing statistical measures to facilitate the identification of epistatic interactions and the understanding of epistasis in the pathogenesis of complex diseases.

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