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Open Access Highly Accessed Methodology article

An inferential framework for biological network hypothesis tests

Phillip D Yates1* and Nitai D Mukhopadhyay2

Author Affiliations

1 Pfizer Global Research and Development, Groton, CT, USA

2 Department of Biostatistics, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA, USA

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BMC Bioinformatics 2013, 14:94  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-14-94

Published: 14 March 2013



Networks are ubiquitous in modern cell biology and physiology. A large literature exists for inferring/proposing biological pathways/networks using statistical or machine learning algorithms. Despite these advances a formal testing procedure for analyzing network-level observations is in need of further development. Comparing the behaviour of a pharmacologically altered pathway to its canonical form is an example of a salient one-sample comparison. Locating which pathways differentiate disease from no-disease phenotype may be recast as a two-sample network inference problem.


We outline an inferential method for performing one- and two-sample hypothesis tests where the sampling unit is a network and the hypotheses are stated via network model(s). We propose a dissimilarity measure that incorporates nearby neighbour information to contrast one or more networks in a statistical test. We demonstrate and explore the utility of our approach with both simulated and microarray data; random graphs and weighted (partial) correlation networks are used to form network models. Using both a well-known diabetes dataset and an ovarian cancer dataset, the methods outlined here could better elucidate co-regulation changes for one or more pathways between two clinically relevant phenotypes.


Formal hypothesis tests for gene- or protein-based networks are a logical progression from existing gene-based and gene-set tests for differential expression. Commensurate with the growing appreciation and development of systems biology, the dissimilarity-based testing methods presented here may allow us to improve our understanding of pathways and other complex regulatory systems. The benefit of our method was illustrated under select scenarios.