Single-cell mRNA quantification and differential analysis with Census

Journal name:
Nature Methods
Year published:
Published online


Single-cell gene expression studies promise to reveal rare cell types and cryptic states, but the high variability of single-cell RNA-seq measurements frustrates efforts to assay transcriptional differences between cells. We introduce the Census algorithm to convert relative RNA-seq expression levels into relative transcript counts without the need for experimental spike-in controls. Analyzing changes in relative transcript counts led to dramatic improvements in accuracy compared to normalized read counts and enabled new statistical tests for identifying developmentally regulated genes. Census counts can be analyzed with widely used regression techniques to reveal changes in cell-fate-dependent gene expression, splicing patterns and allelic imbalances. We reanalyzed single-cell data from several developmental and disease studies, and demonstrate that Census enabled robust analysis at multiple layers of gene regulation. Census is freely available through our updated single-cell analysis toolkit, Monocle 2.

At a glance


  1. Census approximation of relative transcript counts in single cells without external RNA standards.
    Figure 1: Census approximation of relative transcript counts in single cells without external RNA standards.

    (a) Typical single-cell RNA-seq procedure for estimating mRNA abundances via spike-in standards. Losses alter the distribution of relative gene expression levels in a single cell. RT, reverse transcription. (b) Distribution of transcript counts corresponding to each cell's most frequently observed relative abundance (i.e., TPM) in cDNA or lysate RNA from lung epithelial data25. (c) Total transcripts per lung epithelial cell estimated using Census counts versus using spike-in controls. Blue line indicates linear regression. The shading around the blue line indicates the 95% confidence interval of the regression. Black line indicates perfect concordance. (d) MA plot for expressed genes based on contrasts between cells from embryonic day (E)14.5 and cells from all other time points. Census transcript counts (top); transcript counts derived by spike-in regression (bottom). (e) Fold changes in gene expression based on Census counts or spike-in regression of spike-ins, contrasting cells from E14.5 and all other time points.

  2. Census counts improved the accuracy of differential expression analysis.
    Figure 2: Census counts improved the accuracy of differential expression analysis.

    (a) Receiver-operating characteristic (ROC) curves showing the accuracy of differential expression (DE) analysis between E14.5 and E18.5 lung epithelial cells25. Tools were provided with relative expression levels, normalized read counts, and transcript counts estimated with spike-ins or Census. A permutation-based test was applied to the spike-in-based expression levels to determine a ground truth set of DE genes. TPM (true total), counts derived by scaling TPM values by the correct per-cell total RNA. AUC, area under the curve. (b) Consensus between Monocle, DESeq2, edgeR and permutation tests using different measures of expression. Lighter bar colors, size of the union of DE genes reported by any of the four tests. Darker bar colors, number of DE genes identified by all tests.

  3. BEAM identification of branch-dependent gene expression and potential drivers of lung epithelial fate specification.
    Figure 3: BEAM identification of branch-dependent gene expression and potential drivers of lung epithelial fate specification.

    (a) Monocle recovered a branched single-cell trajectory beginning with bronchoalveolar progenitors and terminating at type I (AT1) and type II (AT2) pneumocytes. High expression of proliferation markers (Ccnb2 and Cdk1) was restricted to progenitor cells, whereas high expression of AT1 (Pdpn) and AT2 (Sftpb) markers was restricted to their corresponding lineages. Size of circles denotes level of expression. (b) BEAM uses generalized linear models with natural splines to perform a regression on the data in which branch assignments are known (alternative model), fitting a separate curve for each branch. It also performs a regression in which branch assignments are not known (null model) by fitting a single curve for all the data, and then compares these models via a likelihood ratio test. (c) Null and alternative model fits for AT1 and AT2 markers (Ager and Sftpb, respectively) and housekeeping genes (Hprt and Pgk1). Solid lines, smoothed expression curves for each branch in the alternative model. Dashed lines, fitted curve in null model used in the BEAM test.

  4. Loss of interferon signaling generated a branch in the trajectory followed by immune-stimulated dendritic cells.
    Figure 4: Loss of interferon signaling generated a branch in the trajectory followed by immune-stimulated dendritic cells.

    (a) Experimental design used in ref. 36 to compare BMDCs from Ifnar1−/− and Stat1−/− knockout mice against the wild type as they respond to LPS. (b) Single-cell trajectory recovered by Monocle 2. (c) Six kinetic clusters of branch-dependent genes identified by BEAM are functionally enriched for interferon signaling and other immune-related processes. (d) Branch time point for the significant (via the BEAM test) branching antiviral regulators and their significant branching targets collected from ref. 48 figure 4. (e) Branch time points for the TFs with motifs enriched in nearby DHS site from significant branch genes from cluster 5 and their potential target genes in cluster 5 in c. For all boxplots, upper and lower 'hinges' correspond to the first and third quartiles (the 25th and 75th percentiles), whiskers extend to the highest (or lowest) value that is within 1.5 × inter-quartile range of the hinge, or distance between the first and third quartiles. Points beyond the whiskers are the remaining data. The center line corresponds to the median.

  5. Census enabled robust analysis of differential splicing during human myoblast differentiation.
    Figure 5: Census enabled robust analysis of differential splicing during human myoblast differentiation.

    (a) Splicing structure of human gene TPM1, with the three alternatively spliced sets of exons highlighted. (b) Percent-spliced-in (PSI) values for TPM1 alternative exons. PSI values were computed by summing Census counts for isoforms including each exon and dividing by the total TPM1 transcript count in each cell. Black lines indicate loess smoothing of the PSI values as a function of pseudotime.

  6. Census detected shifts in allelic balance in single cells during embryogenesis.
    Figure 6: Census detected shifts in allelic balance in single cells during embryogenesis.

    (a) A quasibinomial regression model detected changes in allelic balance in single cells as a function of embryo stage. (b) Spread of X-chromosome inactivation as measured by Census for female embryos at different stages (compare with ref. 45 figure 2b). (c) Number of genes with at least 10% contribution from the maternal and paternal copies of X chromosome. (d) Observed monoallelic expression in single cells from late stage embryos as measured by Census transcript counts (top) or normalized read counts (bottom). Red line indicates median fraction of monoallelic calls as a function of average transcript count across cells. Only autosomal genes are shown. Black bars indicate 95% prediction interval generated by a quasibinomial regression model fit to each gene, with the median of the gene intervals indicated by the blue line. Light red points indicate individual genes that fall outside the prediction interval.

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Author information


  1. Department of Genome Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA.

    • Xiaojie Qiu,
    • Andrew Hill,
    • Jonathan Packer,
    • Dejun Lin &
    • Cole Trapnell
  2. Molecular and Cellular Biology Program, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA.

    • Xiaojie Qiu &
    • Cole Trapnell
  3. Department of Applied Mathematics, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA.

    • Yi-An Ma


X.Q. and C.T. designed Census and the regression methods. X.Q. implemented the methods. X.Q. and A.H. performed the analysis. J.P., D.L. and Y.-A.M. contributed to technical design. C.T. conceived the project. All authors wrote the manuscript.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary information

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    Supplementary Figures 1–15, Supplementary Table 2 and Supplementary Note 1

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    Supplementary Table 1

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  1. Supplementary Data (1140 KB)

    Text file storing the result (p-value) from the permutation test used in benchmarking differential gene expression based on spike-in transcript counts. Each row corresponds to a gene.

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  1. Supplementary Software (6550 KB)

    A tarball includes a version of monocle 2 (version: 1.99) used to produce all the figures, supplementary data is provided along with this submission and a helper package including helper functions are included as well as all analysis code which can reproduce all figures in this study are provided.

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