Methods detecting rhythmic gene expression are biologically relevant only for strong signal

PLoS Comput Biol. 2020 Mar 17;16(3):e1007666. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1007666. eCollection 2020 Mar.


The nycthemeral transcriptome embodies all genes displaying a rhythmic variation of their mRNAs periodically every 24 hours, including but not restricted to circadian genes. In this study, we show that the nycthemeral rhythmicity at the gene expression level is biologically functional and that this functionality is more conserved between orthologous genes than between random genes. We used this conservation of the rhythmic expression to assess the ability of seven methods (ARSER, Lomb Scargle, RAIN, JTK, empirical-JTK, GeneCycle, and meta2d) to detect rhythmic signal in gene expression. We have contrasted them to a naive method, not based on rhythmic parameters. By taking into account the tissue-specificity of rhythmic gene expression and different species comparisons, we show that no method is strongly favored. The results show that these methods designed for rhythm detection, in addition to having quite similar performances, are consistent only among genes with a strong rhythm signal. Rhythmic genes defined with a standard p-value threshold of 0.01 for instance, could include genes whose rhythmicity is biologically irrelevant. Although these results were dependent on the datasets used and the evolutionary distance between the species compared, we call for caution about the results of studies reporting or using large sets of rhythmic genes. Furthermore, given the analysis of the behaviors of the methods on real and randomized data, we recommend using primarily ARS, empJTK, or GeneCycle, which verify expectations of a classical distribution of p-values. Experimental design should also take into account the circumstances under which the methods seem more efficient, such as giving priority to biological replicates over the number of time-points, or to the number of time-points over the quality of the technique (microarray vs RNAseq). GeneCycle, and to a lesser extent empirical-JTK, might be the most robust method when applied to weakly informative datasets. Finally, our analyzes suggest that rhythmic genes are mainly highly expressed genes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Circadian Rhythm / genetics*
  • Computational Biology / methods*
  • Databases, Genetic
  • Drosophila / genetics
  • Gene Expression Profiling / methods*
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Organ Specificity / genetics
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Software*
  • Transcriptome / genetics*

Grant support

Funding was received from Schweizerischer Nationalfonds zur Förderung der Wissenschaftlichen Forschung (173048, to MR-R). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.