Comprehensive evaluation of methods for differential expression analysis of metatranscriptomics data

Brief Bioinform. 2023 Sep 20;24(5):bbad279. doi: 10.1093/bib/bbad279.


Understanding the function of the human microbiome is important but the development of statistical methods specifically for the microbial gene expression (i.e. metatranscriptomics) is in its infancy. Many currently employed differential expression analysis methods have been designed for different data types and have not been evaluated in metatranscriptomics settings. To address this gap, we undertook a comprehensive evaluation and benchmarking of 10 differential analysis methods for metatranscriptomics data. We used a combination of real and simulated data to evaluate performance (i.e. type I error, false discovery rate and sensitivity) of the following methods: log-normal (LN), logistic-beta (LB), MAST, DESeq2, metagenomeSeq, ANCOM-BC, LEfSe, ALDEx2, Kruskal-Wallis and two-part Kruskal-Wallis. The simulation was informed by supragingival biofilm microbiome data from 300 preschool-age children enrolled in a study of childhood dental disease (early childhood caries, ECC), whereas validations were sought in two additional datasets from the ECC study and an inflammatory bowel disease study. The LB test showed the highest sensitivity in both small and large samples and reasonably controlled type I error. Contrarily, MAST was hampered by inflated type I error. Upon application of the LN and LB tests in the ECC study, we found that genes C8PHV7 and C8PEV7, harbored by the lactate-producing Campylobacter gracilis, had the strongest association with childhood dental disease. This comprehensive model evaluation offers practical guidance for selection of appropriate methods for rigorous analyses of differential expression in metatranscriptomics. Selection of an optimal method increases the possibility of detecting true signals while minimizing the chance of claiming false ones.

Keywords: benchmark; differential expression; early childhood caries; logistic-beta; metagenomics; metatranscriptomics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Benchmarking*
  • Biofilms
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Computer Simulation
  • Humans
  • Lactic Acid
  • Stomatognathic Diseases*


  • Lactic Acid