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J Bioinform Comput Biol. 2011 Feb;9(1):179-206.

The Janus-faced E-values of HMMER2: extreme value distribution or logistic function?

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Bioinformatics Institute (BII), Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A *STAR), 30 Biopolis Street #07-01, Matrix, Singapore 138671, Singapore.


E-value guided extrapolation of protein domain annotation from libraries such as Pfam with the HMMER suite is indispensable for hypothesizing about the function of experimentally uncharacterized protein sequences. Since the recent release of HMMER3 does not supersede all functions of HMMER2, the latter will remain relevant for ongoing research as well as for the evaluation of annotations that reside in databases and in the literature. In HMMER2, the E-value is computed from the score via a logistic function or via a domain model-specific extreme value distribution (EVD); the lower of the two is returned as E-value for the domain hit in the query sequence. We find that, for thousands of domain models, this treatment results in switching from the EVD to the statistical model with the logistic function when scores grow (for Pfam release 23, 99% in the global mode and 75% in the fragment mode). If the score corresponding to the breakpoint results in an E-value above a user-defined threshold (e.g. 0.1), a critical score region with conflicting E-values from the logistic function (below the threshold) and from EVD (above the threshold) does exist. Thus, this switch will affect E-value guided annotation decisions in an automated mode. To emphasize, switching in the fragment mode is of no practical relevance since it occurs only at E-values far below 0.1. Unfortunately, a critical score region does exist for 185 domain models in the hmmpfam and 1,748 domain models in the hmmsearch global-search mode. For 145 out the respective 185 models, the critical score region is indeed populated by actual sequences. In total, 24.4% of their hits have a logistic function-derived E-value < 0.1 when the EVD provides an E-value > 0.1. We provide examples of false annotations and critically discuss the appropriateness of a logistic function as alternative to the EVD.

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