- Open Access
EXPath: a database of comparative expression analysis inferring metabolic pathways for plants
© Chien et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2015
Published: 21 January 2015
In general, the expression of gene alters conditionally to catalyze a specific metabolic pathway. Microarray-based datasets have been massively produced to monitor gene expression levels in parallel with numerous experimental treatments. Although several studies facilitated the linkage of gene expression data and metabolic pathways, none of them are amassed for plants. Moreover, advanced analysis such as pathways enrichment or how genes express under different conditions is not rendered.
Therefore, EXPath was developed to not only comprehensively congregate the public microarray expression data from over 1000 samples in biotic stress, abiotic stress, and hormone secretion but also allow the usage of this abundant resource for coexpression analysis and differentially expression genes (DEGs) identification, finally inferring the enriched KEGG pathways and gene ontology (GO) terms of three model plants: Arabidopsis thaliana, Oryza sativa, and Zea mays. Users can access the gene expression patterns of interest under various conditions via five main functions (Gene Search, Pathway Search, DEGs Search, Pathways/GO Enrichment, and Coexpression analysis) in EXPath, which are presented by a user-friendly interface and valuable for further research.
In conclusion, EXPath, freely available at http://expath.itps.ncku.edu.tw, is a database resource that collects and utilizes gene expression profiles derived from microarray platforms under various conditions to infer metabolic pathways for plants.
Plants, which are classified as the kingdom Plantae, provide source of energy and oxygen in ecosystems and the majority of agricultural production worldwide. To maintain the autotrophic mechanisms as well as the resistance to impacts from surroundings (e.g., extreme weather, soil salinity, and pests), the elaborate control of gene expression and collaboration under various environments or conditions at molecular level is critical and related to growth, development, and the yield of crop production in plants . Since the lack of motility compels plants to be more tolerant against the threat of external stresses, genes involved in stress-related response, signal transduction pathways, and the induced transcription factors (TFs) were progressively discovered through the comparative genomics approaches [2–5]. Moreover, phytohormones, which are believed to modulate plant growth and diverse development processes, have been reported in relation to environmental variation in Arabidopsis and maize [6–8]. The evidence reveals that the complexity of gene regulation in significant pathways or biochemical reactions plays an important role in coping with plants survival and their self-defense mechanisms towards different circumstances.
In general, the expression of gene alters conditionally to catalyze a specific metabolic pathway [9, 10]. Comprehensively investigating how genes are activated or repressed, i.e., differentially expressed genes (DEGs), in vital biological processes under various conditions are essential to understand gene functions and the coexpression manner in metabolic routes. In recent decades, microarray-based datasets have been massively produced to monitor gene expression levels in parallel with numerous experimental treatments . This high-throughput detection of transcript quantity facilitates the comparative expression analysis by combining multiple microarray expression data among different samples and even different species . Due to the abundance of expression datasets generated by microarray platforms for plants, a plenty of databases and resources have promptly collected gene expression data that are publicly accessible. Among them, Gene Expression Omnibus (GEO) provides most profuse microarray expression datasets presented with the function of GEO DataSets, GEO Profiles, and GEO2R Analysis . Although GEO2R Analysis allows users to compare multiple expression data and then identify DEGs, GEO Profiles can only display the expression level of one gene across different samples in each dataset. Another powerful tool, eFP Browser, is easily adaptable for analyzing microarray or other large-scale datasets in plants by using pictographic representations . Additionally, PLEXdb, GENEVESTIGATOR, NASCArrays, and RiceXPro are also useful repositories for microarray gene expression profiles in Arabidopsis, rice, and plants [15–18]. On the other hand, to gain a comprehensive insight into plant metabolic pathways that are consisted of metabolites and enzymes, relevant databases were established recently. Gramene, a comparative resource for plants, summarizes ten databases of plant metabolic pathways, e.g., AraCyc, RiceCyc, MaizeCyc, BrachyCyc and SorghumCyc . Moreover, MetNet Online integrates information of metabolic pathways and regulatory networks for Arabidopsis thaliana, Glycine max and Vitis vinifera . Other instances of similar pathway knowledge bases are Arabidopsis reactome and Pathway studio [21, 22].
Construction and content
Repository for microarray gene expression data
Categories of microarray samples in EXPath expression database.
# of samples
P.syringae pv.tomato DC3000
Magnaporthe oryzae strain Guy11
X. oryzae pv. oryzae
X. oryzae pv. oryzicola
Sporisorium reilianum f. sp. Zeae (Kühn)
Data processing and normalization
After processing the raw data of microarray datasets, the normalization procedure was executed to avoid systematic biases arising from the variation between different trials (GEO series/GSEs) and samples. In this work, robust multi-array average (RMA) was performed by using the justRMA function in affy package, which is a part of the BioConductor project [27, 28]. For those genes with raw intensities from multiple probes and replicates, we first filtered the outliers by the interquartile range (IQR) rule and retained data between the upper and lower quartiles. Then, the average of all reserved replicates was calculated to represent the expression level for each gene in given conditions.
Collection of annotation files
EXPath offers gene general information including descriptions, cDNA and protein sequences, Pfam protein families, GO terms, and involved pathways for users' reference. The annotation files of Arabidopsis thaliana, Oryza sativa, and Zea mays were downloaded from TAIR10, RAP-DB, and MaizeGDB separately [29–31]. For descriptions, cDNA and protein sequences, and Pfam protein families, except the descriptions of Arabidopsis thaliana were from TAIR10 and the descriptions and sequences of Oryza sativa were from RAP-DB, other datasets were acquired by using Ensembl BioMarts . The latest GO terms and involved pathways were collected from gene ontology consortium and KEGG database [33, 34].
Comparative expression analysis
Differentially expressed genes
To determine genes that are differentially expressed under given conditions, t-test statistic method was applied by using function t.test() of R package in EXPath. Users can specify a treatment from biotic stress, abiotic stress, or hormone secretion that are well-categorized for three model plants, and then set the time point, fold change and p-value cutoffs. Statistics of fold change and DEG lists (up-regulated and down-regulated) are also provided in EXPath.
Coexpression gene groups
Co-expressed genes are a group of genes that express simultaneously under specific conditions. Theoretically, they tend to be controlled under similar transcriptional regulation and involve in identical biological processes or pathways. To investigate this concept, we calculated the coexpression levels of 111 KEGG pathways with number of genes more than 10 by using Pearson's correlation coefficient (PCC) in Arabidopsis thaliana. Among them, 92.6% of pathways are positively correlated with satisfied PCCs (most of them are between 0.6 ~ 0.9, see Figure S1, Additional file 1), which suggest that genes involved in the same pathway are generally co-expressed. In EXPath, Pearson's correlation coefficient and Spearman's rank correlation coefficient are applied by using cor() functions in R package to identify genes with co-expression patterns. Normalized raw intensities of genes without log transformation were used to calculate correlation coefficient because it may alter original expression levels that we mentioned previously . Users can customize positive/negative correlation and the conditions (abiotic stress, biotic stress, hormone treatment, and overall conditions) they intend to explore. The expression patterns of coexpression gene groups are illustrated based on z-score transformation:
The character z denotes z-score in the above formula, whereas x, μ, and σ represent the raw intensity, mean, and standard deviation of gene expression levels respectively.
Enriched KEGG pathways and GO terms
where N and M denote the number of background genes and total genes involved in specific KEGG pathways or GO terms, whereas i genes out of n genes in the gene group × belong to that KEGG pathways or GO terms. The usage of dhyper () and phyper () in R were applied to obtain hypergeometric p-values for each gene group.
Utility and discussion
Basic implement in EXPath
Advanced combination analysis in EXPath
In addition to explore five functions provided in EXPath separately, all of them are connected with each other using the linkage buttons or hyperlinks in output webpages. For example, in the Gene Search result page, EXPath not only maps the query gene to KEGG pathways to illustrate the involvement of that gene in the corresponding pathway map with its microarray expression levels under specified conditions but also furnishes the linkage button for performing coexpression analysis. Furthermore, advanced combination analysis, the most practical application in EXPath, exposes the powerful pipeline for comparative expression analysis in plants. By combining DEGs Search with Pathways/GO Enrichment, the differentially expressed genes between control and treatment samples are identified first. Then, users can designate up-regulated genes, down-regulated genes, or all DEGs to perform Pathways/GO Enrichment. The enriched KEGG pathways or GO terms of DEGs helps plant scientists to understand, for instance, the resistance to abiotic stresses, pathogenicity of microbes or viruses, and even hormone treatments. Another combination analysis of Coexpression analysis and Pathways/GO Enrichment aims to distinguish coexpressed genes for exhaustively inferring gene functions and their biological roles. A case study given below describes the details of this application.
Case study: the JAZ10
Enriched pathways of JAZ10 coexpressed gene group (partial, only shows top 10 results).
Hit number (Query)
Percentage in query
alpha-Linolenic acid metabolism
Linoleic acid metabolism
Phenylalanine, tyrosine and tryptophan biosynthesis
Plant hormone signal transduction
Isoquinoline alkaloid biosynthesis
Biosynthesis of amino acids
Tropane, piperidine and pyridine alkaloid biosynthesis
Enriched GO terms of JAZ10 coexpressed gene group (partial, only shows top 10 results).
Hit number (Query)
Percentage in query
response to jasmonic acid
response to wounding
jasmonic acid biosynthetic process
response to fungus
abscisic acid-activated signaling pathway
jasmonic acid mediated signaling pathway
response to stress
response to ethylene
hyperosmotic salinity response
EXPath is an overarching repository geared towards plant scientists to facilitate the retrieval of microarray gene expression data from publicly available resources and the analysis of comparative expression. As the novel database integrating gene expression data with metabolic pathways, the inferred pathways give an insight into the discovery of gene functions, pathogenicity of external invasion, and defense mechanisms for plants. By the usage of five main functions (i.e., Gene Search, Pathway Search, DEGs Search, Pathways/GO Enrichment, and Coexpression analysis) and the advanced combination analysis of them, EXPath indeed provides an effective interface for users to explore the information of interest that will be valuable for further research. Although EXPath facilitates the comparison of expression levels among genes involved in designated pathways, the limited number of plant genes recruited in KEGG database restricts the availability for comparative expression analysis. Another limitation is insufficient expression datasets in public for other plants rather than Arabidopsis, rice, and maize. For perspectives, in addition to the expectation of more available plant genes in KEGG database, we will keep surveying any relevant sample with expression profile released in public, especially for those derived from the treatments of biotic stress, abiotic stress, hormone secretion, and even development.
Availability and requirements
The EXPath database is publicly available at http://EXPath.itps.ncku.edu.tw.
This research was supported by a grant from National Science Council of the Republic of China for financially supporting this research under Contract NSC 102-2313-B-006 -004 and MOST 103-2311-B-006 -001.
This article has been published as part of BMC Genomics Volume 16 Supplement 2, 2015: Selected articles from the Thirteenth Asia Pacific Bioinformatics Conference (APBC 2015): Genomics. The full contents of the supplement are available online at http://www.biomedcentral.com/bmcgenomics/supplements/16/S2
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