VirVarSeq: a low-frequency virus variant detection pipeline for Illumina sequencing using adaptive base-calling accuracy filtering
Motivation: In virology, massively parallel sequencing (MPS) opens many opportunities for studying viral quasi-species, e.g. in HIV-1- and HCV-infected patients. This is essential for understanding pathways to resistance, which can substantially improve treatment. Although MPS platforms allow in-depth characterization of sequence variation, their measurements still involve substantial technical noise. For Illumina sequencing, single base substitutions are the main error source and impede powerful assessment of low-frequency mutations. Fortunately, base calls are complemented with quality scores (Qs) that are useful for differentiating errors from the real low-frequency mutations. Results: A variant calling tool, Q-cpileup, is proposed, which exploits the Qs of nucleotides in a filtering strategy to increase specificity. The tool is imbedded in an open-source pipeline, VirVarSeq, which allows variant calling starting from fastq files. Using both plasmid mixtures and clinical samples, we show that Q-cpileup is able to reduce the number of false-positive findings. The filtering strategy is adaptive and provides an optimized threshold for individual samples in each sequencing run. Additionally, linkage information is kept between single-nucleotide polymorphisms as variants are called at the codon level. This enables virologists to have an immediate biological interpretation of the reported variants with respect to their antiviral drug responses. A comparison with existing SNP caller tools reveals that calling variants at the codon level with Q-cpileup results in an outstanding sensitivity while maintaining a good specificity for variants with frequencies down to 0.5%.