Prediction of transcriptional regulatory interactions in bacteria : a comparative genomics approach

Chua, Xin-Yi (2012) Prediction of transcriptional regulatory interactions in bacteria : a comparative genomics approach. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


Exponential growth of genomic data in the last two decades has made manual analyses impractical for all but trial studies. As genomic analyses have become more sophisticated, and move toward comparisons across large datasets, computational approaches have become essential. One of the most important biological questions is to understand the mechanisms underlying gene regulation. Genetic regulation is commonly investigated and modelled through the use of transcriptional regulatory network (TRN) structures.

These model the regulatory interactions between two key components: transcription factors (TFs) and the target genes (TGs) they regulate.

Transcriptional regulatory networks have proven to be invaluable scientific tools in Bioinformatics. When used in conjunction with comparative genomics, they have provided substantial insights into the evolution of regulatory interactions. Current approaches to regulatory network inference, however, omit two additional key entities: promoters and transcription factor binding sites (TFBSs). In this study, we attempted to explore the relationships among these regulatory components in bacteria.

Our primary goal was to identify relationships that can assist in reducing the high false positive rates associated with transcription factor binding site predictions and thereupon enhance the reliability of the inferred transcription regulatory networks.

In our preliminary exploration of relationships between the key regulatory components in Escherichia coli transcription, we discovered a number of potentially useful features. The combination of location score and sequence dissimilarity scores increased de novo binding site prediction accuracy by 13.6%. Another important observation made was with regards to the relationship between transcription factors grouped by their regulatory role and corresponding promoter strength. Our study of E.coli ��70 promoters, found support at the 0.1 significance level for our hypothesis | that weak promoters are preferentially associated with activator binding sites to enhance gene expression, whilst strong promoters have more repressor binding sites to repress or inhibit gene transcription. Although the observations were specific to �70, they nevertheless strongly encourage additional investigations when more experimentally confirmed data are available.

In our preliminary exploration of relationships between the key regulatory components in E.coli transcription, we discovered a number of potentially useful features { some of which proved successful in reducing the number of false positives when applied to re-evaluate binding site predictions. Of chief interest was the relationship observed between promoter strength and TFs with respect to their regulatory role. Based on the common assumption, where promoter homology positively correlates with transcription rate, we hypothesised that weak promoters would have more transcription factors that enhance gene expression, whilst strong promoters would have more repressor binding sites. The t-tests assessed for E.coli �70 promoters returned a p-value of 0.072, which at 0.1 significance level suggested support for our (alternative) hypothesis; albeit this trend may only be present for promoters where corresponding TFBSs are either all repressors or all activators. Nevertheless, such suggestive results strongly encourage additional investigations when more experimentally confirmed data will become available.

Much of the remainder of the thesis concerns a machine learning study of binding site prediction, using the SVM and kernel methods, principally the spectrum kernel. Spectrum kernels have been successfully applied in previous studies of protein classification [91, 92], as well as the related problem of promoter predictions [59], and we have here successfully applied the technique to refining TFBS predictions. The advantages provided by the SVM classifier were best seen in `moderately'-conserved transcription factor binding sites as represented by our E.coli CRP case study. Inclusion of additional position feature attributes further increased accuracy by 9.1% but more notable was the considerable decrease in false positive rate from 0.8 to 0.5 while retaining 0.9 sensitivity.

Improved prediction of transcription factor binding sites is in turn extremely valuable in improving inference of regulatory relationships, a problem notoriously prone to false positive predictions. Here, the number of false regulatory interactions inferred using the conventional two-component model was substantially reduced when we integrated de novo transcription factor binding site predictions as an additional criterion for acceptance in a case study of inference in the Fur regulon. This initial work was extended to a comparative study of the iron regulatory system across 20 Yersinia strains.

This work revealed interesting, strain-specific difierences, especially between pathogenic and non-pathogenic strains. Such difierences were made clear through interactive visualisations using the TRNDifi software developed as part of this work, and would have remained undetected using conventional methods. This approach led to the nomination of the Yfe iron-uptake system as a candidate for further wet-lab experimentation due to its potential active functionality in non-pathogens and its known participation in full virulence of the bubonic plague strain.

Building on this work, we introduced novel structures we have labelled as regulatory trees', inspired by the phylogenetic tree concept. Instead of using gene or protein sequence similarity, the regulatory trees were constructed based on the number of similar regulatory interactions. While the common phylogentic trees convey information regarding changes in gene repertoire, which we might regard being analogous tohardware', the regulatory tree informs us of the changes in regulatory circuitry, in some respects analogous to `software'.

In this context, we explored the pan-regulatory network' for the Fur system, the entire set of regulatory interactions found for the Fur transcription factor across a group of genomes. In the pan-regulatory network, emphasis is placed on how the regulatory network for each target genome is inferred from multiple sources instead of a single source, as is the common approach. The benefit of using multiple reference networks, is a more comprehensive survey of the relationships, and increased confidence in the regulatory interactions predicted. In the present study, we distinguish between relationships found across the full set of genomes as thecore-regulatory-set', and interactions found only in a subset of genomes explored as the `sub-regulatory-set'. We found nine Fur target gene clusters present across the four genomes studied, this core set potentially identifying basic regulatory processes essential for survival. Species level difierences are seen at the sub-regulatory-set level; for example the known virulence factors, YbtA and PchR were found in Y.pestis and P.aerguinosa respectively, but were not present in both E.coli and B.subtilis. Such factors and the iron-uptake systems they regulate, are ideal candidates for wet-lab investigation to determine whether or not they are pathogenic specific.

In this study, we employed a broad range of approaches to address our goals and assessed these methods using the Fur regulon as our initial case study. We identified a set of promising feature attributes; demonstrated their success in increasing transcription factor binding site prediction specificity while retaining sensitivity, and showed the importance of binding site predictions in enhancing the reliability of regulatory interaction inferences.

Most importantly, these outcomes led to the introduction of a range of visualisations and techniques, which are applicable across the entire bacterial spectrum and can be utilised in studies beyond the understanding of transcriptional regulatory networks.

Impact and interest:

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ID Code: 55249
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD)
Supervisor: Hogan, James M. & Timms, Peter
Keywords: transcriptional regulatory interactions, bacteria, genomics approach, gene regulation, transcriptional regulatory network
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Science & Engineering Faculty
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 02 Dec 2012 23:43
Last Modified: 03 Sep 2015 10:58

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