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Keywords:

  • Base-calling;
  • Large-scale data analysis;
  • Linear models;
  • Second-generation DNA sequencing;
  • Quality assessment

Summary Second-generation sequencing (sec-gen) technology can sequence millions of short fragments of DNA in parallel, making it capable of assembling complex genomes for a small fraction of the price and time of previous technologies. In fact, a recently formed international consortium, the 1000 Genomes Project, plans to fully sequence the genomes of approximately 1200 people. The prospect of comparative analysis at the sequence level of a large number of samples across multiple populations may be achieved within the next five years. These data present unprecedented challenges in statistical analysis. For instance, analysis operates on millions of short nucleotide sequences, or reads—strings of A,C,G, or T's, between 30 and 100 characters long—which are the result of complex processing of noisy continuous fluorescence intensity measurements known as base-calling. The complexity of the base-calling discretization process results in reads of widely varying quality within and across sequence samples. This variation in processing quality results in infrequent but systematic errors that we have found to mislead downstream analysis of the discretized sequence read data. For instance, a central goal of the 1000 Genomes Project is to quantify across-sample variation at the single nucleotide level. At this resolution, small error rates in sequencing prove significant, especially for rare variants. Sec-gen sequencing is a relatively new technology for which potential biases and sources of obscuring variation are not yet fully understood. Therefore, modeling and quantifying the uncertainty inherent in the generation of sequence reads is of utmost importance. In this article, we present a simple model to capture uncertainty arising in the base-calling procedure of the Illumina/Solexa GA platform. Model parameters have a straightforward interpretation in terms of the chemistry of base-calling allowing for informative and easily interpretable metrics that capture the variability in sequencing quality. Our model provides these informative estimates readily usable in quality assessment tools while significantly improving base-calling performance.