Adjusting for Batch Effects in DNA Methylation Microarray Data, a Lesson Learned

Front Genet. 2018 Mar 16;9:83. doi: 10.3389/fgene.2018.00083. eCollection 2018.


It is well-known, but frequently overlooked, that low- and high-throughput molecular data may contain batch effects, i.e., systematic technical variation. Confounding of experimental batches with the variable(s) of interest is especially concerning, as a batch effect may then be interpreted as a biologically significant finding. An integral step toward reducing false discovery in molecular data analysis includes inspection for batch effects and accounting for this signal if present. In a 30-sample pilot Illumina Infinium HumanMethylation450 (450k array) experiment, we identified two sources of batch effects: row and chip. Here, we demonstrate two approaches taken to process the 450k data in which an R function, ComBat, was applied to adjust for the non-biological signal. In the "initial analysis," the application of ComBat to an unbalanced study design resulted in 9,612 and 19,214 significant (FDR < 0.05) DNA methylation differences, despite none present prior to correction. Suspicious of this dramatic change, a "revised processing" included changes to our analysis as well as a greater number of samples, and successfully reduced batch effects without introducing false signal. Our work supports conclusions made by an article previously published in this journal: though the ultimate antidote to batch effects is thoughtful study design, every DNA methylation microarray analysis should inspect, assess and, if necessary, account for batch effects. The analysis experience presented here can serve as a reminder to the broader community to establish research questions a priori, ensure that they match with study design and encourage communication between technicians and analysts.

Keywords: 450k array; ComBat; DNA methylation; EWAS; Illumina; batch correction; batch effects.