Reference-free inference of tumor phylogenies from single-cell sequencing data
Effective management and treatment of cancer continues to be complicated by the rapid evolution and resulting heterogeneity of tumors. Phylogenetic study of cell populations in single tumors provides a way to delineate intra-tumoral heterogeneity and identify robust features of evolutionary processes. The introduction of single-cell sequencing has shown great promise for advancing single-tumor phylogenetics; however, the volume and high noise in these data present challenges for inference,
... ially with regard to chromosome abnormalities that typically dominate tumor evolution. Here, we investigate a strategy to use such data to track differences in tumor cell genomic content during progression. Results: We propose a reference-free approach to mining single-cell genome sequence reads to allow predictive classification of tumors into heterogeneous cell types and reconstruct models of their evolution. The approach extracts k-mer counts from single-cell tumor genomic DNA sequences, and uses differences in normalized k-mer frequencies as a proxy for overall evolutionary distance between distinct cells. The approach computationally simplifies deriving phylogenetic markers, which normally relies on first aligning sequence reads to a reference genome and then processing the data to extract meaningful progression markers for constructing phylogenetic trees. The approach also provides a way to bypass some of the challenges that massive genome rearrangement typical of tumor genomes presents for reference-based methods. We illustrate the method on a publicly available breast tumor single-cell sequencing dataset. Conclusions: We have demonstrated a computational approach for learning tumor progression from single cell sequencing data using k-mer counts. k-mer features classify tumor cells by stage of progression with high accuracy. Phylogenies built from these k-mer spectrum distance matrices yield splits that are statistically significant when tested for their ability to partition cells at different stages of cancer.