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Improving clustering with metabolic pathway data

Diego H Milone1*, Georgina Stegmayer1, Mariana López2, Laura Kamenetzky2 and Fernando Carrari2

Author Affiliations

1 Research Center for Signals, Systems and Computational Intelligence, sinc(i), FICH-UNL, CONICET, Ciudad Universitaria UNL, (3000) Santa Fe, Argentina

2 Instituto de Biotecnología, Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria (IB-INTA), CONICET, PO Box 25, B1712WAA Castelar, Argentina

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BMC Bioinformatics 2014, 15:101  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-15-101

Published: 10 April 2014



It is a common practice in bioinformatics to validate each group returned by a clustering algorithm through manual analysis, according to a-priori biological knowledge. This procedure helps finding functionally related patterns to propose hypotheses for their behavior and the biological processes involved. Therefore, this knowledge is used only as a second step, after data are just clustered according to their expression patterns. Thus, it could be very useful to be able to improve the clustering of biological data by incorporating prior knowledge into the cluster formation itself, in order to enhance the biological value of the clusters.


A novel training algorithm for clustering is presented, which evaluates the biological internal connections of the data points while the clusters are being formed. Within this training algorithm, the calculation of distances among data points and neurons centroids includes a new term based on information from well-known metabolic pathways. The standard self-organizing map (SOM) training versus the biologically-inspired SOM (bSOM) training were tested with two real data sets of transcripts and metabolites from Solanum lycopersicum and Arabidopsis thaliana species. Classical data mining validation measures were used to evaluate the clustering solutions obtained by both algorithms. Moreover, a new measure that takes into account the biological connectivity of the clusters was applied. The results of bSOM show important improvements in the convergence and performance for the proposed clustering method in comparison to standard SOM training, in particular, from the application point of view.


Analyses of the clusters obtained with bSOM indicate that including biological information during training can certainly increase the biological value of the clusters found with the proposed method. It is worth to highlight that this fact has effectively improved the results, which can simplify their further analysis.

The algorithm is available as a web-demo at webcite. The source code and the data sets supporting the results of this article are available at webcite.

Clustering; SOM training; Pathway data