Tutorial: Genome assembly Quality Metrics

Prerequisites: Basic knowledge of Linux command-line usage and sequence assembly.
Level: Intermediate.
To give fundamental knowledge of methods on 1. how to check the quality and completeness of sequence assemblies. 2. How to detect errors in sequence assemblies.


Genome assembly is a difficult and yet unsolved problem. Sequence assembly tools must solve many challenging subproblems. For example, multiple-sequence alignment (MSA) and finding paths in graphs.

MSA is NP-complete and finding paths in graphs an NP-hard problem. It is not possible optimally solve an NP-complete problem. Although not proven but nobody has managed with that feat yet.

The current sequencing technologies can only produce short reads compared to chromosome lengths. This is the main reason why we need assembly programs in the first place.

The short read lengths, in turn, present a challenge to reconstruct a genome. The foremost reasons are sequence repeats, sequencing errors, incomplete coverage, and heterozygosity. Read more about this topic at Complications in Fragment Assembly.

A sequence assembly can go wrong in many ways. Thus, we must assess both the correctness and completeness of an assembly. We go through the most common assembly quality metrics.

Short repeat distribution

Genomic repeats that are longer than the read length complicate the assembly (Figure 1.). It is a good idea to assess the repeat content before the assembly stage. The analysis is also useful for the assessment of the quality of an assembly.

Figure 1. A schematic illustration of how an assembly can go wrong on repeated sections of a genome. Usually, identical or almost identical repeats tend to form high coverage regions and produce gaps. By analysis of coverage distribution, it is possible to detect regions that are likely caused by an erroneous assembly.

We can use k-mers (reads of length k) to estimate biases, repeat content, sequencing coverage, and heterozygosity.

A few tools exist that compute various statistics using k-mers, such as KmerGenie (5) and GenomeScope (6). GenomeScope is also available online: http://qb.cshl.edu/genomescope/.

Most of the time we need to improve the first draft assemblies. To get an idea of how close to the true genome sequence the draft assembly is, we can compare it with the experimentally estimated size. It is also possible to computationally estimate the size of a genome using k-mer distributions but that is beyond the scope of this tutorial.

It always a good idea to plot varied k-mer frequencies to get a picture of the genome composition. For example, haploid and diploid genomes have differing k-mer distributions (Figure 2.).

Figure 2. The 31-mer histograms of our paired-end sequence data. Each histogram shows a bimodal distribution typical of a diploid heterozygous genome. The relative fraction of the distribution under the left (haploid) peak is proportional to the genome heterozygosity. Using the relative proportions of the two peaks the genomes can be ranked by their heterozygosity. Source: (7) (CC -BY-4).

Contig and scaffold length distribution

In the perfect world, a genome assembly results in a single contig for a haploid chromosome and in two contigs for a diploid chromosome. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world; Thus, assemblies tend to come out in many smaller contigs with varied lengths.

The most common statistic for the analysis of contig lengths is N50. It tells us what is the least length of contigs that cover at least half of the genome. Often an accurate estimation of the genome size is not available but we can use the total length of the contigs instead.

We compute the N50 by first ordering all the contigs in ascending order starting from the shortest. Next, starting from the shortest contig, we add up the length of each one until we reach a value that is equal to or greater than 50% of the total length of all the contigs. That value is N50 (Figure 3.).

Figure 3. Example of N50 = 70. The half of the genome is covered with contigs at least the size of 70.

Another common metric is N90, computed as N50 but the ‘cutoff’ is 90% of the total genome length. So, N90-length is the smallest length of contigs that cover at least 90% of the genome. Various other statistics exist, although not as common as N50 and N90. See related statistics on Wikipedia.

The REAPR tool (Recognition of Errors in Assemblies using Paired Reads) computes a “corrected” N50 metric. The input is an assembly file in FASTA format and a BAM file containing paired-end read mapped to the assembly. The tool computes scores for base accuracy, detects locations of incorrect assemblies and uses the information to compute the “corrected” N50 value. You can download the tool at https://www.sanger.ac.uk.

R code for computing N50

It is very easy to use R to compute N50. We can write the following function:

Documentation for APE library and read.dna.

Presence of conserved genes

Plotting contig or scaffold length distributions and computing N50 or other N-values are informative but more we should not only rely on those statistics.

A well-established method to quantify the completeness of genome assemblies is by assessing the gene content. We can use the information, for example, to pinpoint assembly problems and to improve assemblies by targeting the problematic regions.

BUSCO (Benchmarking Universal Single-Copy Orthologs) is a tool that uses datasets from OrthoDB to assess the completeness of genome and transcriptome assemblies. It uses protein-coding orthologous genes present as single-copies in at least 90% of the species.

The BUSCO tool has datasets for vertebrates, arthropods, fungi, nematodes, plants, protists, and prokaryotes.

The core idea is that if BUSCO fails to identify genes in an assembly, it is a sign of an incomplete assembly. Also, if more than a single copy is present, it is a sign of duplication produced by an assembly program.

You can download BUSCO at https://busco.ezlab.org/. It is free.

BUSCO has replaced the discontinued CEGMA (Core Eukaryotic Genes Mapping Approach).

See also Sequence Assembly Practical.

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