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Open Access Methodology article

Misty Mountain clustering: application to fast unsupervised flow cytometry gating

István P Sugár* and Stuart C Sealfon

Author Affiliations

Department of Neurology and Center for Translational Systems Biology, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, NY, USA

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BMC Bioinformatics 2010, 11:502  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-11-502

Published: 9 October 2010

Abstract

Background

There are many important clustering questions in computational biology for which no satisfactory method exists. Automated clustering algorithms, when applied to large, multidimensional datasets, such as flow cytometry data, prove unsatisfactory in terms of speed, problems with local minima or cluster shape bias. Model-based approaches are restricted by the assumptions of the fitting functions. Furthermore, model based clustering requires serial clustering for all cluster numbers within a user defined interval. The final cluster number is then selected by various criteria. These supervised serial clustering methods are time consuming and frequently different criteria result in different optimal cluster numbers. Various unsupervised heuristic approaches that have been developed such as affinity propagation are too expensive to be applied to datasets on the order of 106 points that are often generated by high throughput experiments.

Results

To circumvent these limitations, we developed a new, unsupervised density contour clustering algorithm, called Misty Mountain, that is based on percolation theory and that efficiently analyzes large data sets. The approach can be envisioned as a progressive top-down removal of clouds covering a data histogram relief map to identify clusters by the appearance of statistically distinct peaks and ridges. This is a parallel clustering method that finds every cluster after analyzing only once the cross sections of the histogram. The overall run time for the composite steps of the algorithm increases linearly by the number of data points. The clustering of 106 data points in 2D data space takes place within about 15 seconds on a standard laptop PC. Comparison of the performance of this algorithm with other state of the art automated flow cytometry gating methods indicate that Misty Mountain provides substantial improvements in both run time and in the accuracy of cluster assignment.

Conclusions

Misty Mountain is fast, unbiased for cluster shape, identifies stable clusters and is robust to noise. It provides a useful, general solution for multidimensional clustering problems. We demonstrate its suitability for automated gating of flow cytometry data.