Deconvolution of autoencoders to learn biological regulatory modules from single cell mRNA sequencing data

Savvas Kinalis, Finn Cilius Nielsen, Ole Winther, Frederik Otzen Bagger*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

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Background: Unsupervised machine learning methods (deep learning) have shown their usefulness with noisy single cell mRNA-sequencing data (scRNA-seq), where the models generalize well, despite the zero-inflation of the data. A class of neural networks, namely autoencoders, has been useful for denoising of single cell data, imputation of missing values and dimensionality reduction. Results: Here, we present a striking feature with the potential to greatly increase the usability of autoencoders: With specialized training, the autoencoder is not only able to generalize over the data, but also to tease apart biologically meaningful modules, which we found encoded in the representation layer of the network. Our model can, from scRNA-seq data, delineate biological meaningful modules that govern a dataset, as well as give information as to which modules are active in each single cell. Importantly, most of these modules can be explained by known biological functions, as provided by the Hallmark gene sets. Conclusions: We discover that tailored training of an autoencoder makes it possible to deconvolute biological modules inherent in the data, without any assumptions. By comparisons with gene signatures of canonical pathways we see that the modules are directly interpretable. The scope of this discovery has important implications, as it makes it possible to outline the drivers behind a given effect of a cell. In comparison with other dimensionality reduction methods, or supervised models for classification, our approach has the benefit of both handling well the zero-inflated nature of scRNA-seq, and validating that the model captures relevant information, by establishing a link between input and decoded data. In perspective, our model in combination with clustering methods is able to provide information about which subtype a given single cell belongs to, as well as which biological functions determine that membership.

Original languageEnglish
Article number379
JournalBMC Bioinformatics
Issue number1
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - 8 Jul 2019


  • Biological pathway analysis
  • Deep learning
  • Expression profiles
  • Functional analysis
  • Gene set enrichment analysis
  • Interpretable machine learning
  • Manifold learning
  • Neural networks
  • Single-cell RNA-sequencing


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