Motivation: With the rapid emergence of technologies for locating cis-regulatory modules (CRMs) genome-wide, the next pressing challenge is to assign precise functions to each CRM, i.e. to determine the spatiotemporal domains or cell-types where it drives expression. A popular approach to this task is to model the typical k-mer composition of a set of CRMs known to drive a common expression pattern, and assign that pattern to other CRMs exhibiting a similar k-mer composition. This approach does not rely on prior knowledge of transcription factors relevant to the CRM or their binding motifs, and is thus more widely applicable than motif-based methods for predicting CRM activity, but is also prone to false positive predictions.
Results: We present a novel strategy to improve the above-mentioned approach: to predict if a CRM drives a specific gene expression pattern, assess not only how similar the CRM is to other CRMs with similar activity but also to CRMs with distinct activities. We use a state-of-the-art statistical method to quantify a CRM’s sequence similarity to many different training sets of CRMs, and employ a classification algorithm to integrate these similarity scores into a single prediction of the CRM’s activity. This strategy is shown to significantly improve CRM activity prediction over current approaches.