Background: Recent studies in the area of transcriptomics performed on single-cell and population levels reveal noticeable variability in gene expression measurements provided by different RNA sequencing technologies. Due to increased noise and complexity of single-cell RNA-Seq (scRNA-Seq) data over the bulk experiment, there is a substantial number of variably-expressed genes and so-called dropouts, challenging the subsequent computational analysis and potentially leading to false positive discoveries. In order to investigate factors affecting technical variability between RNA sequencing experiments of different technologies, we performed a systematic assessment of single-cell and bulk RNA-Seq data, which have undergone the same pre-processing and sample preparation procedures.
Results: Our analysis indicates that variability between gene expression measurements as well as dropout events are not exclusively caused by biological variability, low expression levels, or random variation. Furthermore, we propose FAVSeq, a machine learning-assisted pipeline for detection of factors contributing to gene expression variability in matched RNA-Seq data provided by two technologies. Based on the analysis of the matched bulk and single-cell dataset, we found the 3'-UTR and transcript lengths as the most relevant effectors of the observed variation between RNA-Seq experiments, while the same factors together with cellular compartments were shown to be associated with dropouts.
Conclusions: Here, we investigated the sources of variation in RNA-Seq profiles of matched single-cell and bulk experiments. In addition, we proposed the FAVSeq pipeline for analyzing multimodal RNA sequencing data, which allowed to identify factors affecting quantitative difference in gene expression measurements as well as the presence of dropouts. Hereby, the derived knowledge can be employed further in order to improve the interpretation of RNA-Seq data and identify genes that can be affected by assay-based deviations. Source code is available under the MIT license at https://github.com/slipnitskaya/FAVSeq.