Classifying signatures: search, gather, and lca methods.

sourmash provides several different techniques for doing classification and breakdown of signatures.

Breaking down metagenomic samples with gather and lca

Neither search option (similarity or containment) is effective when comparing or searching with metagenomes, which typically have a mixture of many different genomes. While you might use containment to see if a query genome is present in one or more metagenomes, a common question to ask is the reverse: what genomes are in my metagenome?

We have implemented two algorithms in sourmash to do this.

One algorithm uses taxonomic information from e.g. GenBank to classify individual k-mers, and then infers taxonomic distributions of metagenome contents from the presence of these individual k-mers. (This is the approach pioneered by Kraken and many other tools.) sourmash lca can be used to classify individual genome bins with classify, or summarize metagenome taxonomy with summarize. The sourmash lca tutorial shows how to use the lca classify and summarize commands, and also provides guidance on building your own database.

The other approach, gather, breaks a metagenome down into individual genomes based on greedy partitioning. Essentially, it takes a query metagenome and searches the database for the most highly contained genome; it then subtracts that match from the metagenome, and repeats. At the end it reports how much of the metagenome remains unknown. The basic sourmash tutorial has some sample output from using gather with GenBank.

Our preliminary benchmarking suggests that gather is the most accurate method available for doing strain-level resolution of genomes. More on that as we move forward!

To do taxonomy, or not to do taxonomy?

By default, there is no structured taxonomic information available in sourmash signatures or SBT databases of signatures. Generally what this means is that you will have to provide your own mapping from a match to some taxonomic hierarchy. This is generally the case when you are working with lots of genomes that have no taxonomic information.

The lca subcommands, however, work with LCA databases, which contain taxonomic information by construction. This is one of the main differences between the sourmash lca subcommands and the basic sourmash search functionality. So the lca subcommands will generally output structured taxonomic information, and these are what you should look to if you are interested in doing classification.

The command lca gather applies the gather algorithm to search an LCA database; it reports taxonomy.

It’s important to note that taxonomy based on k-mers is very, very specific and if you get a match, it’s pretty reliable. On the converse, however, k-mer identification is very brittle with respect to evolutionary divergence, so if you don’t get a match it may only mean that the particular species isn’t known.

Abundance weighting

If you compute your input signatures with --track-abundance, both sourmash gather and sourmash lca gather will use that information to calculate an abundance-weighted result. Briefly, this will weight each match to a hash value by the multiplicity of the hash value in the query signature. You can turn off this behavior with --ignore-abundance.

What commands should I use?

It’s not always easy to figure that out, we know! We’re thinking about better tutorials and documentation constantly.

We suggest the following approach:

  • build some signatures and do some searches, to get some basic familiarity with sourmash;

  • explore the available databases;

  • then ask questions via the issue tracker and we will do our best to help you out!

This helps us figure out what people are actually interested in doing, and any help we provide via the issue tracker will eventually be added into the documentation.