Detecting cell-type-specific allelic expression imbalance by integrative analysis of bulk and single-cell RNA sequencing data

PLoS Genet. 2021 Mar 4;17(3):e1009080. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1009080. eCollection 2021 Mar.


Allelic expression imbalance (AEI), quantified by the relative expression of two alleles of a gene in a diploid organism, can help explain phenotypic variations among individuals. Traditional methods detect AEI using bulk RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) data, a data type that averages out cell-to-cell heterogeneity in gene expression across cell types. Since the patterns of AEI may vary across different cell types, it is desirable to study AEI in a cell-type-specific manner. Although this can be achieved by single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-seq), it requires full-length transcript to be sequenced in single cells of a large number of individuals, which are still cost prohibitive to generate. To overcome this limitation and utilize the vast amount of existing disease relevant bulk tissue RNA-seq data, we developed BSCET, which enables the characterization of cell-type-specific AEI in bulk RNA-seq data by integrating cell type composition information inferred from a small set of scRNA-seq samples, possibly obtained from an external dataset. By modeling covariate effect, BSCET can also detect genes whose cell-type-specific AEI are associated with clinical factors. Through extensive benchmark evaluations, we show that BSCET correctly detected genes with cell-type-specific AEI and differential AEI between healthy and diseased samples using bulk RNA-seq data. BSCET also uncovered cell-type-specific AEIs that were missed in bulk data analysis when the directions of AEI are opposite in different cell types. We further applied BSCET to two pancreatic islet bulk RNA-seq datasets, and detected genes showing cell-type-specific AEI that are related to the progression of type 2 diabetes. Since bulk RNA-seq data are easily accessible, BSCET provides a convenient tool to integrate information from scRNA-seq data to gain insight on AEI with cell type resolution. Results from such analysis will advance our understanding of cell type contributions in human diseases.