Discovering epistatic feature interactions from neural network models of regulatory DNA sequences

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Abstract

Motivation

Transcription factors bind regulatory DNA sequences in a combinatorial manner to modulate gene expression. Deep neural networks (DNNs) can learn the cis-regulatory grammars encoded in regulatory DNA sequences associated with transcription factor binding and chromatin accessibility. Several feature attribution methods have been developed for estimating the predictive importance of individual features (nucleotides or motifs) in any input DNA sequence to its associated output prediction from a DNN model. However, these methods do not reveal higher-order feature interactions encoded by the models.

Results

We present a new method called Deep Feature Interaction Maps (DFIM) to efficiently estimate interactions between all pairs of features in any input DNA sequence. DFIM accurately identifies ground truth motif interactions embedded in simulated regulatory DNA sequences. DFIM identifies synergistic interactions between GATA1 and TAL1 motifs from in vivo TF binding models. DFIM reveals epistatic interactions involving nucleotides flanking the core motif of the Cbf1 TF in yeast from in vitro TF binding models. We also apply DFIM to regulatory sequence models of in vivo chromatin accessibility to reveal interactions between regulatory genetic variants and proximal motifs of target TFs as validated by TF binding quantitative trait loci. Our approach makes significant strides in improving the interpretability of deep learning models for genomics.

Availability and implementation

Code is available at: https://github.com/kundajelab/dfim.

Supplementary information

Supplementary data are available at Bioinformatics online.

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