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Geistlinger, Ludwig (2016): Network-based analysis of gene expression data. Dissertation, LMU München: Faculty of Mathematics, Computer Science and Statistics



The methods of molecular biology for the quantitative measurement of gene expression have undergone a rapid development in the past two decades. High-throughput assays with the microarray and RNA-seq technology now enable whole-genome studies in which several thousands of genes can be measured at a time. However, this has also imposed serious challenges on data storage and analysis, which are subject of the young, but rapidly developing field of computational biology. To explain observations made on such a large scale requires suitable and accordingly scaled models of gene regulation. Detailed models, as available for single genes, need to be extended and assembled in larger networks of regulatory interactions between genes and gene products. Incorporation of such networks into methods for data analysis is crucial to identify molecular mechanisms that are drivers of the observed expression. As methods for this purpose emerge in parallel to each other and without knowing the standard of truth, results need to be critically checked in a competitive setup and in the context of the available rich literature corpus. This work is centered on and contributes to the following subjects, each of which represents important and distinct research topics in the field of computational biology: (i) construction of realistic gene regulatory network models; (ii) detection of subnetworks that are significantly altered in the data under investigation; and (iii) systematic biological interpretation of detected subnetworks. For the construction of regulatory networks, I review existing methods with a focus on curation and inference approaches. I first describe how literature curation can be used to construct a regulatory network for a specific process, using the well-studied diauxic shift in yeast as an example. In particular, I address the question how a detailed understanding, as available for the regulation of single genes, can be scaled-up to the level of larger systems. I subsequently inspect methods for large-scale network inference showing that they are significantly skewed towards master regulators. A recalibration strategy is introduced and applied, yielding an improved genome-wide regulatory network for yeast. To detect significantly altered subnetworks, I introduce GGEA as a method for network-based enrichment analysis. The key idea is to score regulatory interactions within functional gene sets for consistency with the observed expression. Compared to other recently published methods, GGEA yields results that consistently and coherently align expression changes with known regulation types and that are thus easier to explain. I also suggest and discuss several significant enhancements to the original method that are improving its applicability, outcome and runtime. For the systematic detection and interpretation of subnetworks, I have developed the EnrichmentBrowser software package. It implements several state-of-the-art methods besides GGEA, and allows to combine and explore results across methods. As part of the Bioconductor repository, the package provides a unified access to the different methods and, thus, greatly simplifies the usage for biologists. Extensions to this framework, that support automating of biological interpretation routines, are also presented. In conclusion, this work contributes substantially to the research field of network-based analysis of gene expression data with respect to regulatory network construction, subnetwork detection, and their biological interpretation. This also includes recent developments as well as areas of ongoing research, which are discussed in the context of current and future questions arising from the new generation of genomic data.