Elucidating tissue specific genes using the Benford distribution

Deepak Karthik, Gil Stelzer, Sivan Gershanov, Danny Baranes, Mali Salmon-Divon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Background: The RNA-seq technique is applied for the investigation of transcriptional behaviour. The reduction in sequencing costs has led to an unprecedented trove of gene expression data from diverse biological systems. Subsequently, principles from other disciplines such as the Benford law, which can be properly judged only in data-rich systems, can now be examined on this high-throughput transcriptomic information. The Benford law, states that in many count-rich datasets the distribution of the first significant digit is not uniform but rather logarithmic. Results: All tested digital gene expression datasets showed a Benford-like distribution when observing an entire gene set. This phenomenon was conserved in development and does not demonstrate tissue specificity. However, when obedience to the Benford law is calculated for individual expressed genes across thousands of cells, genes that best and least adhere to the Benford law are enriched with tissue specific or cell maintenance descriptors, respectively. Surprisingly, a positive correlation was found between the obedience a gene exhibits to the Benford law and its expression level, despite the former being calculated solely according to first digit frequency while totally ignoring the expression value itself. Nevertheless, genes with low expression that exhibit Benford behavior demonstrate tissue specific associations. These observations were extended to predict the likelihood of tissue specificity based on Benford behaviour in a supervised learning approach. Conclusions: These results demonstrate the applicability and potential predictability of the Benford law for gleaning biological insight from simple count data.

Original languageEnglish
Article number595
JournalBMC Genomics
Issue number1
StatePublished - 9 Aug 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Benford law
  • Gene expression
  • RNA-seq

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Genetics


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