Background: Though Illumina has largely dominated the RNA-Seq field, the simultaneous availability of Ion Torrent has left scientists wondering which platform is most effective for differential gene expression (DGE) analysis. Previous investigations of this question have typically used reference samples derived from cell lines and brain tissue, and do not involve biological variability. While these comparisons might inform studies of tissue-specific expression, marked by large-scale transcriptional differences, this is not the common use case.
Results: Here we employ a standard treatment/control experimental design, which enables us to evaluate these platforms in the context of the expression differences common in differential gene expression experiments. Specifically, we assessed the hepatic inflammatory response of mice by assaying liver RNA from control and IL-1β treated animals with both the Illumina HiSeq and the Ion Torrent Proton sequencing platforms. We found the greatest difference between the platforms at the level of read alignment, a moderate level of concordance at the level of DGE analysis, and nearly identical results at the level of differentially affected pathways. Interestingly, we also observed a strong interaction between sequencing platform and choice of aligner. By aligning both real and simulated Illumina and Ion Torrent data with the twelve most commonly-cited aligners in the literature, we observed that different aligner and platform combinations were better suited to probing different genomic features; for example, disentangling the source of expression in gene-pseudogene pairs.
Conclusions: Taken together, our results indicate that while Illumina and Ion Torrent have similar capacities to detect changes in biology from a treatment/control experiment, these platforms may be tailored to interrogate different transcriptional phenomena through careful selection of alignment software.
Keywords: Differential expression; Illumina; Ion Torrent; Pathway analysis; RNA-Seq.