How does the structure of data impact cell-cell similarity? Evaluating how structural properties influence the performance of proximity metrics in single cell RNA-seq data

Brief Bioinform. 2022 Nov 19;23(6):bbac387. doi: 10.1093/bib/bbac387.


Accurately identifying cell-populations is paramount to the quality of downstream analyses and overall interpretations of single-cell RNA-seq (scRNA-seq) datasets but remains a challenge. The quality of single-cell clustering depends on the proximity metric used to generate cell-to-cell distances. Accordingly, proximity metrics have been benchmarked for scRNA-seq clustering, typically with results averaged across datasets to identify a highest performing metric. However, the 'best-performing' metric varies between studies, with the performance differing significantly between datasets. This suggests that the unique structural properties of an scRNA-seq dataset, specific to the biological system under study, have a substantial impact on proximity metric performance. Previous benchmarking studies have omitted to factor the structural properties into their evaluations. To address this gap, we developed a framework for the in-depth evaluation of the performance of 17 proximity metrics with respect to core structural properties of scRNA-seq data, including sparsity, dimensionality, cell-population distribution and rarity. We find that clustering performance can be improved substantially by the selection of an appropriate proximity metric and neighbourhood size for the structural properties of a dataset, in addition to performing suitable pre-processing and dimensionality reduction. Furthermore, popular metrics such as Euclidean and Manhattan distance performed poorly in comparison to several lessor applied metrics, suggesting that the default metric for many scRNA-seq methods should be re-evaluated. Our findings highlight the critical nature of tailoring scRNA-seq analyses pipelines to the dataset under study and provide practical guidance for researchers looking to optimize cell-similarity search for the structural properties of their own data.

Keywords: data structure; distance; evaluation framework; similarity; single cell clustering; single-cell RNA-seq.

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Benchmarking*
  • Cluster Analysis
  • RNA-Seq
  • Sequence Analysis, RNA / methods
  • Single-Cell Analysis* / methods