Background Cell-type specific gene expression profiles are needed for many computational methods operating on bulk RNA-Seq samples, such as deconvolution of cell-type fractions and digital cytometry. However, the gene expression profile of a cell type can vary substantially due to both technical factors and biological differences in cell state and surroundings, reducing the efficacy of such methods. Here, we investigated which factors contribute most to this variation.
Results We evaluated different normalization methods, quantified the magnitude of variation introduced by different sources, and examined the differences between UMI-based single-cell RNA-Seq and bulk RNA-Seq. We applied methods such as random forest regression to a collection of publicly available bulk and single-cell RNA-Seq datasets containing B and T cells, and found that the technical variation across laboratories is of the same magnitude as the biological variation across cell types. Tissue of origin and cell subtype are less important but still substantial factors, while the difference between individuals is relatively small. We also show that much of the differences between UMI-based single-cell and bulk RNA-Seq methods can be explained by the number of read duplicates per mRNA molecule in the single-cell sample.
Conclusions Our work shows the importance of either matching or correcting for technical factors when creating cell-type specific gene expression profiles that are to be used together with bulk samples.