Detecting viruses from short-read metagenomic data

My very first foray into the microbiome was in graduate school when my advisor (Dr. Rick Bushman) suggested that I try to use a high-throughput genome sequencing instrument (a 454 pyrosequencer) to characterize the viruses present in the healthy human gut. That project ended up delving deeply into the molecular evolution of bacteriophage populations, and gave me a deep appreciation for the unpredictable complexity of viral genomes. 

While I wasn't the first to publish in this area, the general approach has become more popular over the last decade and a number of different groups have put their own spin on it. 

Because of the diversity of viruses, you can always customize and enhance different aspects of the process, from sample collection, purification, and DNA isolation to metagenomic sequencing, bioinformatic analysis, and visualization. It's been very interesting to see how sophisiticated some of these methods have become.

On the bioinformatic analysis side of things, I ended up having the most success in those days by assembling each viral genome from scratch and measuring the evolution of that genome over time. More of the bespoke approach to bioinformatics, rather than the assembly line. 

In contrast, these days I am much more interested in computational approaches that allow me to analyze very large numbers of samples with a minimum of human input required. For that reason I don't find de novo assembly to be all that appealing. It's not that the computation can't be done, it's more than I have a hard time imagining how to wrap my brain around the results in a productive way. 

In contrast, one approach that I have been quite happy with is also much more simple minded. Instead of trying to assemble all of the new genomes in a sample, it's much easier to simply align your short reads against a reference database of viral genomes. One of the drawbacks is that you can only detect a virus that has been detected before. On the other hand, one of the advantages is also that you can only detect a virus that has been detected before, meaning that all samples can be rapidly and intuitively compared against each other. 

To account for the rapid evolution of viral genomes, I think it's best to do this alignment in protein space against the set of proteins contained in every viral genome. This makes the alignments a bit more robust. 

If you would like to perform this simple read alignment method for viral detection, you can use the code that I've put together at this GitHub repo. There is also a Quay repository hosting a Docker image that you can use to run this analysis without having to install any dependencies. 

This codebase is under active development (version 0.1 at time of writing) so please be sure to test carefully against your controls to make sure everything is behaving well. At some point I may end up publishing more about this method, but it may be just too simple to entice any journal. 

Lastly, I want to point out that straightforward alignment of reads does not account for any number of confounding factors, including but not limited to:

  1. presence of human or host DNA
  2. shared genome segments between extant viruses
  3. novel viral genomes
  4. complex viral quasi-species
  5. integration of prophages into host genomes

There are a handful of tools out there that do try to deal with some of those problems in different ways, quite likely to good effect. However, it's good to remember that with every additional optimization you add a potential confounding factor. For example, it sounds like a good idea to remove human sequences from your sample, but that runs the risk of also eliminating viral sequences that happen to be found with the human genome, such as lab contaminants or integrated viral genome fragments. There are even a few human genes with deep homology to existing viral genes, thought to be due to an ancient integration and subsequent repurposing. All I mean to say here is that sometimes it's better to remove the assumptions from your code, and instead include a good set of controls to your experiment that can be used to robustly eliminate signal coming from, for example, the human genome.