Background: Microarray data is frequently used to characterize the expression profile of a whole genome and to compare the characteristics of that genome under several conditions. Geneset analysis methods have been described previously to analyze the expression values of several genes related by known biological criteria (metabolic pathway, pathology signature, co-regulation by a common factor, etc.) at the same time and the cost of these methods allows for the use of more values to help discover the underlying biological mechanisms.
Results: As several methods assume different null hypotheses, we propose to reformulate the main question that biologists seek to answer. To determine which genesets are associated with expression values that differ between two experiments, we focused on three ad hoc criteria: expression levels, the direction of individual gene expression changes (up or down regulation), and correlations between genes. We introduce the FAERI methodology, tailored from a two-way ANOVA to examine these criteria. The significance of the results was evaluated according to the self-contained null hypothesis, using label sampling or by inferring the null distribution from normally distributed random data. Evaluations performed on simulated data revealed that FAERI outperforms currently available methods for each type of set tested. We then applied the FAERI method to analyze three real-world datasets on hypoxia response. FAERI was able to detect more genesets than other methodologies, and the genesets selected were coherent with current knowledge of cellular response to hypoxia. Moreover, the genesets selected by FAERI were confirmed when the analysis was repeated on two additional related datasets.
Conclusions: The expression values of genesets are associated with several biological effects. The underlying mathematical structure of the genesets allows for analysis of data from several genes at the same time. Focusing on expression levels, the direction of the expression changes, and correlations, we showed that two-step data reduction allowed us to significantly improve the performance of geneset analysis using a modified two-way ANOVA procedure, and to detect genesets that current methods fail to detect.