Sequence similarity among distinct genomic regions can lead to errors in alignment of short reads from next-generation sequencing. While this is well known, the downstream consequences of misalignment have not been fully characterized. We assessed the potential for incorrect alignment of RNA-sequencing reads to cause false positives in both gene expression quantitative trait locus (eQTL) and co-expression analyses. Trans-eQTLs identified from human RNA-sequencing studies appeared to be particularly affected by this phenomenon, even when only uniquely aligned reads are considered. Over 75% of trans-eQTLs using a standard pipeline occurred between regions of sequence similarity and therefore could be due to alignment errors. Further, associations due to mapping errors are likely to misleadingly replicate between studies. To help address this problem, we quantified the potential for "cross-mapping'' to occur between every pair of annotated genes in the human genome. Such cross-mapping data can be used to filter or flag potential false positives in both trans-eQTL and co-expression analyses. Such filtering substantially alters the detection of significant associations and can have an impact on the assessment of false discovery rate, functional enrichment, and replication for RNA-sequencing association studies.
Keywords: Alignment; Co-expression; Cross-mappability; Mappability; RNA-sequencing; Trans-eQTL.