Viral bioinformatics: Dotplot

This week’s addition to the virology toolbox was written by Chris Upton

Dotplots are an extremely useful way of visualizing comparisons of small and large DNA sequences (as well as protein sequences), providing insight into the degree of similarity, deletions, insertions and direct and indirect repeats. In a dotplot, each nucleotide, or small window of nucleotides, of one sequence is compared with every nucleotide of a second sequence. Dotplots can quickly provide an overview of the relationship between sequences.

The Dotter program [1] has several very useful features including the ability to save and reload dotplots, the ability to zoom into particular regions of the plot, an option to create a multi-dotplot by aligning more than two DNA (or protein) sequences and permitting users to adjust the stringency of the matrix being displayed in real-time by changing the greyscale of the dots.

JDotter [2] provides an easy to use Java (platform independent) interface to Dotter giving all the benefits of Dotter in a single web-accessible tool. You can access JDotter here.

Additional background information on nucleic acid dotplots is available.

The first figure is a dotplot of three poxvirus interferon gamma binding proteins plotted against each other. Genes are displayed along the axes. This plot takes a few seconds to calculate.

Here is a dotplot of vaccinia CVA and MVA genomes (~170 kb). Large deletions are present in MVA, a result of >500 passages in chicken embryo fibroblasts.  Terminal inverted repeat sequences are obvious in the bottom-left and top-right corners of the plot. A plot for these sequences takes ~ 10 min to calculate.

Next is a self plot of the Molluscum contagiosum virus genome. Enhancing “background” shows that it’s not totally random. The “stripes” are caused by segments of DNA with different nucleotide composition. The region that creates the area in the red box has a higher A+T%, and appears to be derived from host sequences: it contains virulence genes.

Another view of the Molluscum contagiosum virus genome self plot – a zoomed-in view of the red box shown in the previous figure. Three of the genes in the “pale stripe” appear to be paralogs, probably resulting from duplications of an ancestral gene acquired from the host [3].

A student pointed me to the Gepard dotplot program, which is more suited for large DNA sequences (Gepard: German, “cheetah”, Backronym for “GEnome PAir – Rapid Dotter”). The self-plot below, for an E. coli genome took only a couple of minutes to complete. Although it uses a different type of algorithm, the features are similar to Dotter. It is simple to zoom into regions and you can change the parameters for scoring on-the-fly (post-plot).

1. Sonnhammer EL, Durbin R: A dot-matrix program with dynamic threshold control suited for genomic DNA and protein sequence analysis. Gene 1995, 167:GC1-10.

2. Brodie R, Roper RL, Upton C: JDotter: a Java interface to multiple dotplots generated by dotter. Bioinformatics 2004, 20:279-281.

3. Da Silva M, Upton C: Host-derived pathogenicity islands in poxviruses. Virol. J 2005, 2:30.

4. Krumsiek J, Arnold R, Rattei T. Gepard: A rapid and sensitive tool for creating dotplots on genome scale. Bioinformatics 2007; 23(8): 1026-8. PMID: 17309896

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • gsgs 12 August 2010, 8:38 am

    as I understand :

    given k,d,n and 2 sequences A(1..n),B(1..n)
    set a pixel at point x,y , iff
    #{i<=k , A(x+i)=B(y+i)}

    so the sequences needn't be aligned
    but n could be larger than the screen, then the picture
    is shrinked and a pixel is set if at least one pixel was set in the
    larger box to be shrinked


    but aligning should be faster than the whole 2d-dotting

    DISQUS isn't working correctly : after I log in, I can enter no letters.
    But I can reload the blog and goto comments again and DISQUS
    had remembered me

  • Cupton 19 August 2010, 4:08 pm

    Yes, for large sequences there are far more nucleotides than pixels, so an averaging must occur.
    See the original ref for Dotter.

    Alignment maybe quicker, but it is no use trying to align if sequences have inversions and repeats are shown very nicely in a dotplot – can help choose the alignment.
    This is useful when there are several very similarly scoring alignments.

  • gsgs 21 August 2010, 6:21 am

    compute all partial sequences of length -say- 15 forward and backward
    starting at any point in the first sequence.
    Mark those that occur in a 4^15 binary array (134MB)
    Now walk through the 2nd sequence, set a pixel at each position
    whose 15-forward(backward) nucleotide-subsequence is marked
    in the array.That gives a 1-dim picture, basically showing the overlap
    and quickly calculated.
    Hmm, instead of a binary array A(x) use 2 or 3 bits, counting the numbers
    how often that subsequence occurs in #1.
    plot A(x) to find repititions.
    Concatenate #1 and #2 and thus analyse the whole thing.
    Computation time increases linearly with sequence-length or #of sequences,
    not quadratically.