Estimating the activity of transcription factors by the effect on their target genes

Bioinformatics. 2014 Sep 1;30(17):i401-7. doi: 10.1093/bioinformatics/btu446.


Motivation: Understanding regulation of transcription is central for elucidating cellular regulation. Several statistical and mechanistic models have come up the last couple of years explaining gene transcription levels using information of potential transcriptional regulators as transcription factors (TFs) and information from epigenetic modifications. The activity of TFs is often inferred by their transcription levels, promoter binding and epigenetic effects. However, in principle, these methods do not take hard-to-measure influences such as post-transcriptional modifications into account.

Results: For TFs, we present a novel concept circumventing this problem. We estimate the regulatory activity of TFs using their cumulative effects on their target genes. We established our model using expression data of 59 cell lines from the National Cancer Institute. The trained model was applied to an independent expression dataset of melanoma cells yielding excellent expression predictions and elucidated regulation of melanogenesis.

Availability and implementation: Using mixed-integer linear programming, we implemented a switch-like optimization enabling a constrained but optimal selection of TFs and optimal model selection estimating their effects. The method is generic and can also be applied to further regulators of transcription.

Supplementary information: Supplementary data are available at Bioinformatics online.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Gene Expression Regulation*
  • Humans
  • Melanocytes / metabolism
  • Promoter Regions, Genetic
  • Transcription Factors / metabolism*
  • Transcription, Genetic*


  • Transcription Factors