Standardized benchmarking approaches are required to assess the accuracy of variants called from sequence data. Although variant-calling tools and the metrics used to assess their performance continue to improve, important challenges remain. Here, as part of the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health (GA4GH), we present a benchmarking framework for variant calling. We provide guidance on how to match variant calls with different representations, define standard performance metrics, and stratify performance by variant type and genome context. We describe limitations of high-confidence calls and regions that can be used as truth sets (for example, single-nucleotide variant concordance of two methods is 99.7% inside versus 76.5% outside high-confidence regions). Our web-based app enables comparison of variant calls against truth sets to obtain a standardized performance report. Our approach has been piloted in the PrecisionFDA variant-calling challenges to identify the best-in-class variant-calling methods within high-confidence regions. Finally, we recommend a set of best practices for using our tools and evaluating the results.

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Data availability

Raw sequence data used in the PrecisionFDA Truth Challenge were previously deposited in the NCBI SRA with the accession codes SRX847862 to SRX848317. Benchmark calls from GIAB used in the PrecisionFDA challenges and in the examples in Tables 3 and 4 are available at ftp://ftp-trace.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/giab/ftp/release/. VCFs submitted to the PrecisionFDA challenge and benchmarking results are available at https://precision.fda.gov/, where browse access is granted immediately upon requesting account.

Code availability

All code for benchmarking developed for this manuscript are linked to from the GA4GH Benchmarking Team GitHub repository at https://github.com/ga4gh/benchmarking-tools. The hap.py benchmarking toolkit is available at https://github.com/Illumina/hap.py.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Change history

  • 21 March 2019

    In the version of this article initially published online, two pairs of headings were switched with each other in Table 4: “Recall (PCR free)” was switched with “Recall (with PCR),” and “Precision (PCR free)” was switched with “Precision (with PCR).” The error has been corrected in the print, PDF and HTML versions of this article.


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We thank GA4GH, especially S. Keenan, D. Lloyd, and R. Nag, for their support in hosting and organizing the Benchmarking Team. We thank the many contributors to Benchmarking Team and GIAB discussions over the past few years, especially D. Church, S. Lincoln, H. Li, A. Talwalker, K. Jacobs, and B. O’Fallon. Certain commercial equipment, instruments, or materials are identified to specify adequate experimental conditions or reported results. Such identification does not imply recommendation or endorsement by the NIST or the Food and Drug Administration, nor does it imply that the equipment, instruments, or materials identified are necessarily the best available for the purpose.

Author information

Author notes

  1. These authors contributed equally: Marc Salit, Justin M. Zook.

  2. The members of the GA4GH Benchmarking Team are the same as the author list.


  1. Illumina Cambridge Ltd, Little Chesterford, UK

    • Peter Krusche
    • , Benjamin L. Moore
    •  & Mar Gonzalez-Porta
  2. Real Time Genomics, Hamilton, New Zealand

    • Len Trigg
  3. Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

    • Paul C. Boutros
  4. Department of Physiology and Biophysics, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York, NY, USA

    • Christopher E. Mason
  5. The HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud Institute for Computational Biomedicine, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York, NY, USA

    • Christopher E. Mason
  6. The Feil Family Brain and Mind Research Institute, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York, NY, USA

    • Christopher E. Mason
  7. The WorldQuant Initiative for Quantitative Prediction, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York, NY, USA

    • Christopher E. Mason
  8. Department of Biomedical Data Science, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA, USA

    • Francisco M. De La Vega
  9. Illumina Inc., San Diego, CA, USA

    • Michael A. Eberle
  10. Center for Devices and Radiological Health, FDA, Silver Spring, MD, USA

    • Zivana Tezak
  11. Office of Health Informatics, Office of the Commissioner, FDA, Silver Spring, MD, USA

    • Samir Lababidi
  12. Invitae, San Francisco, CA, USA

    • Rebecca Truty
  13. DNAnexus, San Francisco, CA, USA

    • George Asimenos
  14. Veritas Genetics, Danvers, MA, USA

    • Birgit Funke
  15. Broad Institute, Cambridge, MA, USA

    • Mark Fleharty
  16. Bioinformatics Core, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, MA, USA

    • Brad A. Chapman
  17. Joint Initiative for Metrology in Biology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA

    • Marc Salit
  18. Material Measurement Laboratory, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD, USA

    • Justin M. Zook


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  1. the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health Benchmarking Team


    P.K., L.T., P.C.B., C.E.M., F.M.d.l.V., M.A.E., R.T., B.F., M.F., M.S., and J.M.Z. wrote the manuscript. P.K., L.T., F.M.d.l.V., B.L.M., and M.G.-P. designed and implemented the benchmarking tools. Z.T., S.L., G.A., and J.M.Z. designed and/or analyzed results from the PrecisionFDA Challenges. P.K., L.T., G.A., B.A.C., M.S., and J.M.Z. designed the project. All authors contributed to GA4GH Benchmarking Team discussions about this work.

    Competing interests

    P.K., B.L.M., M.G., and M.A.E. are employees of, and/or hold stock in, Illumina. R.T. is an employee of, and holds stock in, Invitae. G.A. is an employee of DNAnexus. B.F. is an employee of Veritas Genetics and holds leadership positions in AMP, CLSI, CAP, and ClinGen. L.T. is an employee of Real Time Genomics. C.E.M. is a founder of Onegevity Health and Biotia, Inc.

    Corresponding author

    Correspondence to Justin M. Zook.

    Integrated supplementary information

    1. Supplementary Figure 1 Example standardized HTML report output from hap.py.

      (a) Tier 1 high-level metrics output in the default view. (b) Precision-recall curve using QUAL field, where the black point is all indels, the blue point is only PASS indels, the dotted blue line is the precision-recall curve for all indels, and the solid blue line is the precision-recall curve for PASS indels. (c) Tier 2 more detailed metrics and stratifications by variant type and genome context.

    2. Supplementary Figure 2 Hybrid Genome in a Bottle and Platinum Genomes truthset.

      The hybrid truth set combines variants from Genome in a Bottle and Platinum Genomes into a single, more comprehensive gold standard. Intersection counts are shown for Genome in a Bottle (GiaB) v3.3.2 GRCh37 compared with Platinum Genomes (PG) v2016.1 as reported by hap.py v0.3.7. The union of both callsets was then re-validated using k-mer testing of inherited haplotypes in the CEPH 1463 pedigree, with all passing calls added to the hybrid truth set (Supplementary Note 4).

    3. Supplementary Figure 3 Two examples in NA12878 where local phasing of variants can affect the interpretation.

      (a) In this case, if the SNVs are interpreted independently then they are two missense mutations, and if they are interpreted together then a stop codon has been gained. (b) In this case, if the SNVs are interpreted independently then there is one missense mutation and one gained stop codon, and if they are interpreted together then it is just a missense mutation. If these events were heterozygous without phasing information, then the interpretation would be ambiguous from the VCF.

    Supplementary information

    1. Supplementary Text and Figures

      Supplementary Figures 1–3, Supplementary Tables 1–2 and Supplementary Notes 1–5

    2. Reporting Summary

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