The impact of incomplete knowledge on the evaluation of protein function prediction: a structured-output learning perspective

Bioinformatics. 2014 Sep 1;30(17):i609-16. doi: 10.1093/bioinformatics/btu472.


Motivation: The automated functional annotation of biological macromolecules is a problem of computational assignment of biological concepts or ontological terms to genes and gene products. A number of methods have been developed to computationally annotate genes using standardized nomenclature such as Gene Ontology (GO). However, questions remain about the possibility for development of accurate methods that can integrate disparate molecular data as well as about an unbiased evaluation of these methods. One important concern is that experimental annotations of proteins are incomplete. This raises questions as to whether and to what degree currently available data can be reliably used to train computational models and estimate their performance accuracy.

Results: We study the effect of incomplete experimental annotations on the reliability of performance evaluation in protein function prediction. Using the structured-output learning framework, we provide theoretical analyses and carry out simulations to characterize the effect of growing experimental annotations on the correctness and stability of performance estimates corresponding to different types of methods. We then analyze real biological data by simulating the prediction, evaluation and subsequent re-evaluation (after additional experimental annotations become available) of GO term predictions. Our results agree with previous observations that incomplete and accumulating experimental annotations have the potential to significantly impact accuracy assessments. We find that their influence reflects a complex interplay between the prediction algorithm, performance metric and underlying ontology. However, using the available experimental data and under realistic assumptions, our results also suggest that current large-scale evaluations are meaningful and almost surprisingly reliable.

Supplementary information: Supplementary data are available at Bioinformatics online.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Computational Biology / methods
  • Gene Ontology
  • Molecular Sequence Annotation
  • Proteins / genetics
  • Proteins / physiology*
  • Sequence Alignment


  • Proteins