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Variant detection sensitivity and biases in whole genome and exome sequencing

Alison M Meynert*, Morad Ansari, David R FitzPatrick and Martin S Taylor

Author Affiliations

MRC Human Genetics Unit, MRC Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine, University of Edinburgh, Western General Hospital, Crewe Road, EH4 2XU Edinburgh, UK

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BMC Bioinformatics 2014, 15:247  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-15-247

Published: 19 July 2014



Less than two percent of the human genome is protein coding, yet that small fraction harbours the majority of known disease causing mutations. Despite rapidly falling whole genome sequencing (WGS) costs, much research and increasingly the clinical use of sequence data is likely to remain focused on the protein coding exome. We set out to quantify and understand how WGS compares with the targeted capture and sequencing of the exome (exome-seq), for the specific purpose of identifying single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in exome targeted regions.


We have compared polymorphism detection sensitivity and systematic biases using a set of tissue samples that have been subject to both deep exome and whole genome sequencing. The scoring of detection sensitivity was based on sequence down sampling and reference to a set of gold-standard SNP calls for each sample. Despite evidence of incremental improvements in exome capture technology over time, whole genome sequencing has greater uniformity of sequence read coverage and reduced biases in the detection of non-reference alleles than exome-seq. Exome-seq achieves 95% SNP detection sensitivity at a mean on-target depth of 40 reads, whereas WGS only requires a mean of 14 reads. Known disease causing mutations are not biased towards easy or hard to sequence areas of the genome for either exome-seq or WGS.


From an economic perspective, WGS is at parity with exome-seq for variant detection in the targeted coding regions. WGS offers benefits in uniformity of read coverage and more balanced allele ratio calls, both of which can in most cases be offset by deeper exome-seq, with the caveat that some exome-seq targets will never achieve sufficient mapped read depth for variant detection due to technical difficulties or probe failures. As WGS is intrinsically richer data that can provide insight into polymorphisms outside coding regions and reveal genomic rearrangements, it is likely to progressively replace exome-seq for many applications.

SNP; Sensitivity; Protein-coding genes; Next-generation sequencing; Whole genome sequencing; Exome sequencing