Comprehensive cell type decomposition of circulating cell-free DNA with CelFiE

Nat Commun. 2021 May 11;12(1):2717. doi: 10.1038/s41467-021-22901-x.


Circulating cell-free DNA (cfDNA) in the bloodstream originates from dying cells and is a promising noninvasive biomarker for cell death. Here, we propose an algorithm, CelFiE, to accurately estimate the relative abundances of cell types and tissues contributing to cfDNA from epigenetic cfDNA sequencing. In contrast to previous work, CelFiE accommodates low coverage data, does not require CpG site curation, and estimates contributions from multiple unknown cell types that are not available in external reference data. In simulations, CelFiE accurately estimates known and unknown cell type proportions from low coverage and noisy cfDNA mixtures, including from cell types composing less than 1% of the total mixture. When used in two clinically-relevant situations, CelFiE correctly estimates a large placenta component in pregnant women, and an elevated skeletal muscle component in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patients, consistent with the occurrence of muscle wasting typical in these patients. Together, these results show how CelFiE could be a useful tool for biomarker discovery and monitoring the progression of degenerative disease.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Algorithms*
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / blood
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / genetics*
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / immunology
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / pathology
  • B-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • B-Lymphocytes / metabolism
  • Biomarkers / blood
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cell-Free Nucleic Acids / blood
  • Cell-Free Nucleic Acids / classification
  • Cell-Free Nucleic Acids / genetics*
  • DNA Methylation*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Macrophages / immunology
  • Macrophages / metabolism
  • Male
  • Monocytes / immunology
  • Monocytes / metabolism
  • Muscle, Skeletal / immunology
  • Muscle, Skeletal / metabolism
  • Muscle, Skeletal / pathology
  • Neutrophils / immunology
  • Neutrophils / metabolism
  • Organ Specificity
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Trimesters / blood
  • Pregnancy Trimesters / genetics
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes / metabolism


  • Biomarkers
  • Cell-Free Nucleic Acids