Sequencing depth for accurate SNP calling: bcbio case study

Intuitively, it is easy to grasp that the more sequencing depth (i.e., the greater the number of reads covering any given position in the genome) the more accurate the calling of SNPs and indels (insertions/deletions).   But how much difference does this actually make in the real world?  Is 20X coverage dramatically worse than 30X (considered a standard coverage depth on genomes)?

To find out, I conducted an experiment with the bcbio pipeline, a bioinformatics pipeline solution built in python that allows for automated and reproducible analyses on high-performance computing clusters.  One feature of bcbio is that it can perform validation surveys using high-confidence consensus calls from reference genomes like the NA12878 Coriell sample (from the Genome in a Bottle project).
For NA12878, researchers collated consensus SNP and indel calls from a large variety of sequencing technologies and calling methods to produce a very high-confidence callset for training other methods or validating a sequencing workflow.  bcbio includes these variant calls and can easily be setup to validate these calls against a sequenced NA12878 genome.

The sequencing depth experiment

I started with a NA12878 genome sequenced to 30X sequencing depth.  To compare shallower depths, I subsampled the data to generate 20X, 10X, etc…  [Please note: data was not subsetted randomly, rather “slices” were taken from the 30X dataset] To look at a 60X coverage datapoint, I combined data from two sequencing runs on both flow cells of a HiSeq4000 instrument.

The results after validation are shown in Figure 1 (depth of coverage is along the x-axis):

sequencing depth
Fig 1. SNP discovery as a function of increasing coverage of the GIAB validation sample.


The figure shows that, as expected, when sequencing depth decreases  the error rate increases, and SNP discovery declines.   It also makes the case for the commonly held view that 30X is enough coverage for genomes, since going to 60X leads to almost unnoticeable improvement in the % found and a slight increase in error.  Performance really degrades at 12X and below, with poor discovery rates and unacceptably high error rates.

I will be submitting a short manuscript to soon describing this work in more detail.