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BMC Bioinformatics. 2003 Dec 11;4:62.

Statistical significance for hierarchical clustering in genetic association and microarray expression studies.

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Laboratory of Statistical Genetics, Rockefeller University, New York, NY 10021, United States.



With the increasing amount of data generated in molecular genetics laboratories, it is often difficult to make sense of results because of the vast number of different outcomes or variables studied. Examples include expression levels for large numbers of genes and haplotypes at large numbers of loci. It is then natural to group observations into smaller numbers of classes that allow for an easier overview and interpretation of the data. This grouping is often carried out in multiple steps with the aid of hierarchical cluster analysis, each step leading to a smaller number of classes by combining similar observations or classes. At each step, either implicitly or explicitly, researchers tend to interpret results and eventually focus on that set of classes providing the "best" (most significant) result. While this approach makes sense, the overall statistical significance of the experiment must include the clustering process, which modifies the grouping structure of the data and often removes variation.


For hierarchically clustered data, we propose considering the strongest result or, equivalently, the smallest p-value as the experiment-wise statistic of interest and evaluating its significance level for a global assessment of statistical significance. We apply our approach to datasets from haplotype association and microarray expression studies where hierarchical clustering has been used.


In all of the cases we examine, we find that relying on one set of classes in the course of clustering leads to significance levels that are too small when compared with the significance level associated with an overall statistic that incorporates the process of clustering. In other words, relying on one step of clustering may furnish a formally significant result while the overall experiment is not significant.

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