Open Access Open Badges Research article

Expression cartography of human tissues using self organizing maps

Henry Wirth12*, Markus Löffler134, Martin von Bergen25 and Hans Binder14*

Author Affiliations

1 Interdisciplinary Centre for Bioinformatics of Leipzig University, D-4107 Leipzig, Härtelstr. 16-18, Germany

2 Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Department of Proteomics, D-04318 Leipzig, Permoserstr. 15, Germany

3 Institute for Medical Informatics, Statistics and Epidemiology, Universität Leipzig, D-4107 Leipzig, Härtelstr. 16-18, Germany

4 Leipzig Interdisciplinary Research Cluster of Genetic Factors, Clinical Phenotypes and Environment (LIFE); Universität Leipzig, D-4103 Leipzig, Philipp-Rosenthalstr. 27, Germany

5 Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Department of Metabolomics, D-04318 Leipzig, Permoserstr. 15, Germany

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BMC Bioinformatics 2011, 12:306  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-12-306

Published: 27 July 2011



Parallel high-throughput microarray and sequencing experiments produce vast quantities of multidimensional data which must be arranged and analyzed in a concerted way. One approach to addressing this challenge is the machine learning technique known as self organizing maps (SOMs). SOMs enable a parallel sample- and gene-centered view of genomic data combined with strong visualization and second-level analysis capabilities. The paper aims at bridging the gap between the potency of SOM-machine learning to reduce dimension of high-dimensional data on one hand and practical applications with special emphasis on gene expression analysis on the other hand.


The method was applied to generate a SOM characterizing the whole genome expression profiles of 67 healthy human tissues selected from ten tissue categories (adipose, endocrine, homeostasis, digestion, exocrine, epithelium, sexual reproduction, muscle, immune system and nervous tissues). SOM mapping reduces the dimension of expression data from ten of thousands of genes to a few thousand metagenes, each representing a minicluster of co-regulated single genes. Tissue-specific and common properties shared between groups of tissues emerge as a handful of localized spots in the tissue maps collecting groups of co-regulated and co-expressed metagenes. The functional context of the spots was discovered using overrepresentation analysis with respect to pre-defined gene sets of known functional impact. We found that tissue related spots typically contain enriched populations of genes related to specific molecular processes in the respective tissue. Analysis techniques normally used at the gene-level such as two-way hierarchical clustering are better represented and provide better signal-to-noise ratios if applied to the metagenes. Metagene-based clustering analyses aggregate the tissues broadly into three clusters containing nervous, immune system and the remaining tissues.


The SOM technique provides a more intuitive and informative global view of the behavior of a few well-defined modules of correlated and differentially expressed genes than the separate discovery of the expression levels of hundreds or thousands of individual genes. The program is available as R-package 'oposSOM'.