Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from BMC Bioinformatics and BioMed Central.

Open Access Research article

A comparison of univariate and multivariate gene selection techniques for classification of cancer datasets

Carmen Lai1*, Marcel JT Reinders1, Laura J van't Veer2 and Lodewyk FA Wessels12

Author Affiliations

1 Information and Communication Theory Group, Delft University of Technology, Delft, The Netherlands

2 The Netherland's Cancer Institute, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Bioinformatics 2006, 7:235  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-7-235

Published: 2 May 2006



Gene selection is an important step when building predictors of disease state based on gene expression data. Gene selection generally improves performance and identifies a relevant subset of genes. Many univariate and multivariate gene selection approaches have been proposed. Frequently the claim is made that genes are co-regulated (due to pathway dependencies) and that multivariate approaches are therefore per definition more desirable than univariate selection approaches. Based on the published performances of all these approaches a fair comparison of the available results can not be made. This mainly stems from two factors. First, the results are often biased, since the validation set is in one way or another involved in training the predictor, resulting in optimistically biased performance estimates. Second, the published results are often based on a small number of relatively simple datasets. Consequently no generally applicable conclusions can be drawn.


In this study we adopted an unbiased protocol to perform a fair comparison of frequently used multivariate and univariate gene selection techniques, in combination with a ränge of classifiers. Our conclusions are based on seven gene expression datasets, across several cancer types.


Our experiments illustrate that, contrary to several previous studies, in five of the seven datasets univariate selection approaches yield consistently better results than multivariate approaches. The simplest multivariate selection approach, the Top Scoring method, achieves the best results on the remaining two datasets. We conclude that the correlation structures, if present, are difficult to extract due to the small number of samples, and that consequently, overly-complex gene selection algorithms that attempt to extract these structures are prone to overtraining.