Predicting the sequence specificities of DNA- and RNA-binding proteins by deep learning

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Knowing the sequence specificities of DNA- and RNA-binding proteins is essential for developing models of the regulatory processes in biological systems and for identifying causal disease variants. Here we show that sequence specificities can be ascertained from experimental data with 'deep learning' techniques, which offer a scalable, flexible and unified computational approach for pattern discovery. Using a diverse array of experimental data and evaluation metrics, we find that deep learning outperforms other state-of-the-art methods, even when training on in vitro data and testing on in vivo data. We call this approach DeepBind and have built a stand-alone software tool that is fully automatic and handles millions of sequences per experiment. Specificities determined by DeepBind are readily visualized as a weighted ensemble of position weight matrices or as a 'mutation map' that indicates how variations affect binding within a specific sequence.

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We are grateful to K.B. Cook, Q.D. Morris and T.R. Hughes for helpful discussions. This work was supported by a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (OGP-106690) to B.J.F., a John C. Polanyi Fellowship Grant to B.J.F., and funding from the Canadian Institutes for Advanced Research to B.J.F. and M.T.W. B.A. was supported by a joint Autism Research Training and NeuroDevNet Fellowship. A.D. was supported by a Fellowship from the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Author information

Author notes

    • Babak Alipanahi
    •  & Andrew Delong

    These authors contributed equally to this work.


  1. Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

    • Babak Alipanahi
    • , Andrew Delong
    •  & Brendan J Frey
  2. Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

    • Babak Alipanahi
    •  & Brendan J Frey
  3. Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, Programs on Genetic Networks and Neural Computation, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

    • Matthew T Weirauch
    •  & Brendan J Frey
  4. Center for Autoimmune Genomics and Etiology, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.

    • Matthew T Weirauch
  5. Divisions of Biomedical Informatics and Developmental Biology, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.

    • Matthew T Weirauch


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B.A., A.D. and B.J.F. conceived the method. A.D. implemented DeepBind and the online database of models. B.A. designed the experiments with input from A.D., M.T.W., and B.J.F., and also implemented DeepFind. B.A., A.D. and B.J.F. wrote the manuscript with valuable input from M.T.W.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Brendan J Frey.

Integrated supplementary information

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Text and Figures

    Supplementary Figures 1–10

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Notes

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Table 1

    Performance of in vitro trained models on DREAM5 in vitro and in vivo test data

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Table 2

    In vitro performance metrics for models trained on RNAcompete RBP data

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    Supplementary Table 3

    In vivo performance metrics for models trained on RNAcompete RBP data

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    Supplementary Table 4

    The list of all ENCODE ChIP-seq data sets analyzed

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    Supplementary Table 5

    Performance of models trained on ENCODE ChIP-seq data on held out data

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    Supplementary Table 6

    The list of all HT-SELEX data sets analyzed

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    Supplementary Table 7

    Performance of models trained on HT-SELEX data on held out data

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    Supplementary Table 8

    Performance of models trained on HT-SELEX data on ENCODE ChIP-seq data

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    Supplementary Table 9

    P-values for differential binding scores of RBPs regulating alternatively-spliced exons

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    Supplementary Table 10

    All calibration parameters for DeepBind models and the SGD learning algorithm. Each parameter is either fixed for all calibration trials, or is independently sampled for each trial from the given search space.

Zip files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Software

    This code download is distributed as part of the Nature Biotechnology supplementary software release for DeepBind. Users of DeepBind are encouraged to instead use the latest source code and binaries for scoring sequences at access to and use of the downloadable code (the “Code”) contained in this Supplementary Software is subject to a non-exclusive, revocable, non-transferable, and limited right to use the Code for the exclusive purpose of undertaking academic, governmental, or not-for-profit research. Use of the Code or any part thereof for commercial or clinical purposes is strictly prohibited in the absence of a Commercial License Agreement from Deep Genomics. (