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Jointly defining cell types from multiple single-cell datasets using LIGER


High-throughput single-cell sequencing technologies hold tremendous potential for defining cell types in an unbiased fashion using gene expression and epigenomic state. A key challenge in realizing this potential is integrating single-cell datasets from multiple protocols, biological contexts, and data modalities into a joint definition of cellular identity. We previously developed an approach, called linked inference of genomic experimental relationships (LIGER), that uses integrative nonnegative matrix factorization to address this challenge. Here, we provide a step-by-step protocol for using LIGER to jointly define cell types from multiple single-cell datasets. The main stages of the protocol are data preprocessing and normalization, joint factorization, quantile normalization and joint clustering, and visualization. We describe how to jointly define cell types from single-cell RNA-seq (scRNA-seq) and single-nucleus ATAC-seq (snATAC-seq) data, but similar steps apply across a wide range of other settings and data types, including cross-species analysis, single-nucleus DNA methylation, and spatial transcriptomics. Our protocol contains examples of expected results, describes common pitfalls, and relies only on our freely available, open-source R implementation of LIGER. We also provide R Markdown tutorials showing the outputs from each individual code segment. The analysis process can be performed in 1–4 h, depending on dataset size, and assumes no specialized bioinformatics training.

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Fig. 1: Diagram of high-level protocol stages.
Fig. 2: Visualizing LIGER results using UMAP and t-SNE.
Fig. 3: LIGER enables metagene- and dataset-specific analysis of PBMC data.
Fig. 4: Parameter selection of the number of factors k and the tuning parameter λ.
Fig. 5: Plots of raw and normalized loading of factor 21.
Fig. 6: Spurious alignment between datasets decreases after removing mitochondrial artifact factors.
Fig. 7: Distinct cell types show poor alignment compared to alignment of control and stimulated PBMC datasets.
Fig. 8: Diagram of differential expression analysis strategies to find shared cluster markers and cluster-specific dataset differences.
Fig. 9: Marker gene identified by LIGER shows consistent cell-type-specific expression across datasets.
Fig. 10: Marker genes identified by LIGER show expression differences across datasets.
Fig. 11: LIGER enables joint clustering of BMMC data across modalities.
Fig. 12: Expression and chromatin accessibility of marker genes selected by LIGER show consistency across modalities.
Fig. 13: Metagenes and metagene expression levels for BMMC data.
Fig. 14: Genes showing expression and accessibility differences.
Fig. 15: UCSC Genome Browser view showing the correlations between three candidate chromatin-accessible regions and the target gene S100A9.
Fig. 16: Expression and correlated accessibility for S100A9 and a nearby intergenic peak.
Fig. 17: Runtime and peak memory usage for joint factorization of scRNA-seq datasets using LIGER.

Data availability

The datasets used in this paper are all previously published and publicly available:

• scRNA-seq and snATAC-seq data from human BMMCs, from Granja et al.24, GEO accession code GSE139369.

• scRNA-seq data composed of two datasets of interneurons and oligodendrocytes from the mouse frontal cortex, from Saunders et al.1. Data available at

• scRNA-seq data from control and interferon-stimulated PBMCs, from Kang et al.18, GEO accession code GSE96583.

Code availability

The code is freely available at The code is also available through an assigned DOI at


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This work was supported by NIH grants R01 AI149669 and R01 HG010883 (J.D.W.) and U19 1U19MH114821 (E.Z.M.).

Author information




J.L., C.G., J.S., and J.D.W. performed the data analysis. J.L., C.G., J.S., and J.D.W. wrote the paper, with input from E.Z.M. and V.K. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Joshua D. Welch.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

A patent application on LIGER has been submitted by The Broad Institute, Inc., and The General Hospital Corporation with E.Z.M., J.D.W. and V.K. as inventors.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Protocols thanks Andrew Adey, Jinmiao Chen and Sarah Teichmann for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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

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Key references using this protocol

Welch, J. D. et al. Cell 177, 1873–1887.e17 (2019):

Tran, N. M. et al. Neuron 104, 1039–1055.e12 (2019):

Yao, Z. et al. Preprint at bioRxiv (2020):

Krienen, F. M. et al. Preprint at bioRxiv (2019):

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Liu, J., Gao, C., Sodicoff, J. et al. Jointly defining cell types from multiple single-cell datasets using LIGER. Nat Protoc 15, 3632–3662 (2020).

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