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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Comparing a few SNP calling algorithms using low-coverage sequencing data

Xiaoqing Yu1 and Shuying Sun12*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio 44106, USA

2 Department of Mathematics, Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas 78666, USA

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BMC Bioinformatics 2013, 14:274  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-14-274

Published: 17 September 2013



Many Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP) calling programs have been developed to identify Single Nucleotide Variations (SNVs) in next-generation sequencing (NGS) data. However, low sequencing coverage presents challenges to accurate SNV identification, especially in single-sample data. Moreover, commonly used SNP calling programs usually include several metrics in their output files for each potential SNP. These metrics are highly correlated in complex patterns, making it extremely difficult to select SNPs for further experimental validations.


To explore solutions to the above challenges, we compare the performance of four SNP calling algorithm, SOAPsnp, Atlas-SNP2, SAMtools, and GATK, in a low-coverage single-sample sequencing dataset. Without any post-output filtering, SOAPsnp calls more SNVs than the other programs since it has fewer internal filtering criteria. Atlas-SNP2 has stringent internal filtering criteria; thus it reports the least number of SNVs. The numbers of SNVs called by GATK and SAMtools fall between SOAPsnp and Atlas-SNP2. Moreover, we explore the values of key metrics related to SNVs’ quality in each algorithm and use them as post-output filtering criteria to filter out low quality SNVs. Under different coverage cutoff values, we compare four algorithms and calculate the empirical positive calling rate and sensitivity. Our results show that: 1) the overall agreement of the four calling algorithms is low, especially in non-dbSNPs; 2) the agreement of the four algorithms is similar when using different coverage cutoffs, except that the non-dbSNPs agreement level tends to increase slightly with increasing coverage; 3) SOAPsnp, SAMtools, and GATK have a higher empirical calling rate for dbSNPs compared to non-dbSNPs; and 4) overall, GATK and Atlas-SNP2 have a relatively higher positive calling rate and sensitivity, but GATK calls more SNVs.


Our results show that the agreement between different calling algorithms is relatively low. Thus, more caution should be used in choosing algorithms, setting filtering parameters, and designing validation studies. For reliable SNV calling results, we recommend that users employ more than one algorithm and use metrics related to calling quality and coverage as filtering criteria.

Next generation sequencing; SNP calling; Low-coverage; Single-sample; SOAPsnp; Atlas-SNP2; SAMtools; GATK