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Bioinformatics. 2012 Mar 1;28(5):656-63. doi: 10.1093/bioinformatics/bts028. Epub 2012 Jan 12.

Estimation of pairwise sequence similarity of mammalian enhancers with word neighbourhood counts.

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  • 1Department for Computational Molecular Biology, Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics, 14195 Berlin, Germany.



The identity of cells and tissues is to a large degree governed by transcriptional regulation. A major part is accomplished by the combinatorial binding of transcription factors at regulatory sequences, such as enhancers. Even though binding of transcription factors is sequence-specific, estimating the sequence similarity of two functionally similar enhancers is very difficult. However, a similarity measure for regulatory sequences is crucial to detect and understand functional similarities between two enhancers and will facilitate large-scale analyses like clustering, prediction and classification of genome-wide datasets.


We present the standardized alignment-free sequence similarity measure N2, a flexible framework that is defined for word neighbourhoods. We explore the usefulness of adding reverse complement words as well as words including mismatches into the neighbourhood. On simulated enhancer sequences as well as functional enhancers in mouse development, N2 is shown to outperform previous alignment-free measures. N2 is flexible, faster than competing methods and less susceptible to single sequence noise and the occurrence of repetitive sequences. Experiments on the mouse enhancers reveal that enhancers active in different tissues can be separated by pairwise comparison using N2.


N2 represents an improvement over previous alignment-free similarity measures without compromising speed, which makes it a good candidate for large-scale sequence comparison of regulatory sequences.


The software is part of the open-source C++ library SeqAn ( and a compiled version can be downloaded at


Supplementary data are available at Bioinformatics online.

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