The statistical power of k-mer based aggregative statistics for alignment-free detection of horizontal gene transfer

Guan Da Huang, Xue Mei Liu, Tian Lai Huang, Li C. Xia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Alignment-based database search and sequence comparison are commonly used to detect horizontal gene transfer (HGT). However, with the rapid increase of sequencing depth, hundreds of thousands of contigs are routinely assembled from metagenomics studies, which challenges alignment-based HGT analysis by overwhelming the known reference sequences. Detecting HGT by k-mer statistics thus becomes an attractive alternative. These alignment-free statistics have been demonstrated in high performance and efficiency in whole-genome and transcriptome comparisons. To adapt k-mer statistics for HGT detection, we developed two aggregative statistics Tsum S and Tsum *, which subsample metagenome contigs by their representative regions, and summarize the regional D2 S and D2 * metrics by their upper bounds. We systematically studied the aggregative statistics’ power at different k-mer size using simulations. Our analysis showed that, in general, the power of Tsum S and Tsum * increases with sequencing coverage, and reaches a maximum power >80% at k = 6, with 5% Type-I error and the coverage ratio >0.2x. The statistical power of Tsum S and Tsum * was evaluated with realistic simulations of HGT mechanism, sequencing depth, read length, and base error. We expect these statistics to be useful distance metrics for identifying HGT in metagenomic studies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)150-156
Number of pages7
JournalSynthetic and Systems Biotechnology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Alignment-free sequence comparison
  • Horizontal gene transfer
  • Statistical power
  • k-mer

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Structural Biology
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology
  • Genetics


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