Recent single-cell transcriptomic studies revealed new insights into cell-type heterogeneities in cellular microenvironments unavailable from bulk studies. A significant drawback of currently available algorithms is the need to use empirical parameters or rely on indirect quality measures to estimate the degree of complexity, i.e., the number of subgroups present in the sample. We fill this gap with a single-cell data analysis procedure allowing for unambiguous assessments of the depth of heterogeneity in subclonal compositions supported by data. Our approach combines nonnegative matrix factorization, which takes advantage of the sparse and nonnegative nature of single-cell RNA count data, with Bayesian model comparison enabling de novo prediction of the depth of heterogeneity. We show that the method predicts the correct number of subgroups using simulated data, primary blood mononuclear cell, and pancreatic cell data. We applied our approach to a collection of single-cell tumor samples and found two qualitatively distinct classes of cell-type heterogeneity in cancer microenvironments.
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© 2019 Woo et al.
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