MUREN: a robust and multi-reference approach of RNA-seq transcript normalization

BMC Bioinformatics. 2021 Jul 28;22(1):386. doi: 10.1186/s12859-021-04288-0.


Background: Normalization of RNA-seq data aims at identifying biological expression differentiation between samples by removing the effects of unwanted confounding factors. Explicitly or implicitly, the justification of normalization requires a set of housekeeping genes. However, the existence of housekeeping genes common for a very large collection of samples, especially under a wide range of conditions, is questionable.

Results: We propose to carry out pairwise normalization with respect to multiple references, selected from representative samples. Then the pairwise intermediates are integrated based on a linear model that adjusts the reference effects. Motivated by the notion of housekeeping genes and their statistical counterparts, we adopt the robust least trimmed squares regression in pairwise normalization. The proposed method (MUREN) is compared with other existing tools on some standard data sets. The goodness of normalization emphasizes on preserving possible asymmetric differentiation, whose biological significance is exemplified by a single cell data of cell cycle. MUREN is implemented as an R package. The code under license GPL-3 is available on the github platform: and on the conda platform:

Conclusions: MUREN performs the RNA-seq normalization using a two-step statistical regression induced from a general principle. We propose that the densities of pairwise differentiations are used to evaluate the goodness of normalization. MUREN adjusts the mode of differentiation toward zero while preserving the skewness due to biological asymmetric differentiation. Moreover, by robustly integrating pre-normalized counts with respect to multiple references, MUREN is immune to individual outlier samples.

Keywords: Asymmetrically regulated transcription profiles (ART); Mode; Multi-reference; Normalization; RNA-seq; Skewness.

MeSH terms

  • Gene Expression Profiling*
  • Genes, Essential*
  • RNA-Seq
  • Sequence Analysis, RNA
  • Whole Exome Sequencing