[Bioc-devel] zero-width ranges representing insertions

Robert Castelo robert.castelo at upf.edu
Mon Mar 16 17:16:38 CET 2015

dear devel people, specially Val and Michael,

Hervé has recently added an annotation package that includes non-SNVs 
variants from dbSNP, it is called:


if you execute the corresponding example you'll see the kind of 
information stored in the package:


if you pay attention to the following case:

GRanges object with 2 ranges and 3 metadata columns:
       seqnames               ranges strand |   RefSNP_id     alleles
          <Rle>            <IRanges>  <Rle> | <character> <character>
   [1]       22 [10513380, 10513380]      - | rs386831164         -/T
   [2]       22 [10519678, 10519677]      + |  rs71286731       -/TTT
   [1]              T
   [2]              -
   seqinfo: 25 sequences (1 circular) from GRCh38 genome

you'll see the first variant (rs386831164) is a deletion of one 
nucleotide and the second (rs71286731) is an insertion of three 
nucleotides (TTT).

it struck me that the ranges representing the insertion had an start 
position one nucleotide larger than then and i contacted Hervé thinking 
that this was a mistake. however, i've learned from him that these are 
so-called "zero-width" ranges and they actually allow to distinguish 
insertions from every other type of variant without the need to know 
anything about the reference or the alternate allele.

currently, the VCF specification 4.2 
(http://samtools.github.io/hts-specs/VCFv4.2.pdf page 5) uses the 
nucleotide composition of the REF column to help distinguishing 
insertions by including the flanking nucleotide of the inserted 
sequence. As a result, VariantAnnotation::readVcf() produces ranges that 
mimic this standard having identical start and end positions leading to 
1-width ranges:

fl <- system.file("extdata", "CEUtrio.vcf.bgz", package="VariantFiltering")
vcf <- readVcf(fl, genome="hg19")
rowRanges(vcf[isInsertion(vcf), ])[1:2]
GRanges object with 2 ranges and 5 metadata columns:
                     seqnames               ranges strand | paramRangeID
                        <Rle>            <IRanges>  <Rle> |     <factor>
          rs11474033       20 [45093330, 45093330]      * |         <NA>
   20:47592746_G/GGC       20 [47592746, 47592746]      * |         <NA>
                                REF                ALT      QUAL      FILTER
                     <DNAStringSet> <DNAStringSetList> <numeric> <character>
          rs11474033              C              CTTCT   2901.12           .
   20:47592746_G/GGC              G                GGC    608.88           .
   seqinfo: 84 sequences from hg19 genome

table(width(rowRanges(vcf[isInsertion(vcf), ])))


i would like to ask whether it would make sense to harmonize the way in 
which dbSNP insertions and variants are imported into Bioconductor by 
making VariantAnnotation::readVcf() to produce zero-width ranges for 
insertion variants. this not a feature request, i only would like to 
know what whether there is a particular reason not to use the available 
zero-width ranges that seem to be implemented for this purpose.



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