Is your data alignable? Principled and interpretable alignability testing and integration of single-cell data

3 Aug 2023  ·  Rong Ma, Eric D. Sun, David Donoho, James Zou ·

Single-cell data integration can provide a comprehensive molecular view of cells, and many algorithms have been developed to remove unwanted technical or biological variations and integrate heterogeneous single-cell datasets. Despite their wide usage, existing methods suffer from several fundamental limitations. In particular, we lack a rigorous statistical test for whether two high-dimensional single-cell datasets are alignable (and therefore should even be aligned). Moreover, popular methods can substantially distort the data during alignment, making the aligned data and downstream analysis difficult to interpret. To overcome these limitations, we present a spectral manifold alignment and inference (SMAI) framework, which enables principled and interpretable alignability testing and structure-preserving integration of single-cell data. SMAI provides a statistical test to robustly determine the alignability between datasets to avoid misleading inference, and is justified by high-dimensional statistical theory. On a diverse range of real and simulated benchmark datasets, it outperforms commonly used alignment methods. Moreover, we show that SMAI improves various downstream analyses such as identification of differentially expressed genes and imputation of single-cell spatial transcriptomics, providing further biological insights. SMAI's interpretability also enables quantification and a deeper understanding of the sources of technical confounders in single-cell data.

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