Assessment and improvement of statistical tools for comparative proteomics analysis of sparse data sets with few experimental replicates

J Proteome Res. 2013 Sep 6;12(9):3874-83. doi: 10.1021/pr400045u. Epub 2013 Aug 5.


Large-scale quantitative analyses of biological systems are often performed with few replicate experiments, leading to multiple nonidentical data sets due to missing values. For example, mass spectrometry driven proteomics experiments are frequently performed with few biological or technical replicates due to sample-scarcity or due to duty-cycle or sensitivity constraints, or limited capacity of the available instrumentation, leading to incomplete results where detection of significant feature changes becomes a challenge. This problem is further exacerbated for the detection of significant changes on the peptide level, for example, in phospho-proteomics experiments. In order to assess the extent of this problem and the implications for large-scale proteome analysis, we investigated and optimized the performance of three statistical approaches by using simulated and experimental data sets with varying numbers of missing values. We applied three tools, including standard t test, moderated t test, also known as limma, and rank products for the detection of significantly changing features in simulated and experimental proteomics data sets with missing values. The rank product method was improved to work with data sets containing missing values. Extensive analysis of simulated and experimental data sets revealed that the performance of the statistical analysis tools depended on simple properties of the data sets. High-confidence results were obtained by using the limma and rank products methods for analyses of triplicate data sets that exhibited more than 1000 features and more than 50% missing values. The maximum number of differentially represented features was identified by using limma and rank products methods in a complementary manner. We therefore recommend combined usage of these methods as a novel and optimal way to detect significantly changing features in these data sets. This approach is suitable for large quantitative data sets from stable isotope labeling and mass spectrometry experiments and should be applicable to large data sets of any type. An R script that implements the improved rank products algorithm and the combined analysis is available.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Computer Simulation
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical*
  • Proteome / chemistry
  • Proteome / metabolism*
  • Proteomics
  • Quality Improvement
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Research Design
  • Signal-To-Noise Ratio
  • Software*


  • Proteome