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A dynamic programming approach for the alignment of signal peaks in multiple gas chromatography-mass spectrometry experiments

Mark D Robinson12, David P De Souza3, Woon Wai Keen4, Eleanor C Saunders3, Malcolm J McConville3, Terence P Speed15 and Vladimir A Likić34*

Author Affiliations

1 The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, 1G Royal Parade, Parkville, VIC 3050, Australia

2 Department of Medical Biology, University of Melbourne, Parkville, VIC 3010, Australia

3 Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Bio21 Molecular Science and Biotechnology Institute, University of Melbourne, Royal Parade, Parkville, VIC, 3010, Australia

4 Bio21 Molecular Science and Biotechnology Institute, University of Melbourne, Royal Parade, Parkville, 3010, Australia

5 Department of Statistics, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-3860, USA

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BMC Bioinformatics 2007, 8:419  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-8-419

Published: 29 October 2007



Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) is a robust platform for the profiling of certain classes of small molecules in biological samples. When multiple samples are profiled, including replicates of the same sample and/or different sample states, one needs to account for retention time drifts between experiments. This can be achieved either by the alignment of chromatographic profiles prior to peak detection, or by matching signal peaks after they have been extracted from chromatogram data matrices. Automated retention time correction is particularly important in non-targeted profiling studies.


A new approach for matching signal peaks based on dynamic programming is presented. The proposed approach relies on both peak retention times and mass spectra. The alignment of more than two peak lists involves three steps: (1) all possible pairs of peak lists are aligned, and similarity of each pair of peak lists is estimated; (2) the guide tree is built based on the similarity between the peak lists; (3) peak lists are progressively aligned starting with the two most similar peak lists, following the guide tree until all peak lists are exhausted. When two or more experiments are performed on different sample states and each consisting of multiple replicates, peak lists within each set of replicate experiments are aligned first (within-state alignment), and subsequently the resulting alignments are aligned themselves (between-state alignment). When more than two sets of replicate experiments are present, the between-state alignment also employs the guide tree. We demonstrate the usefulness of this approach on GC-MS metabolic profiling experiments acquired on wild-type and mutant Leishmania mexicana parasites.


We propose a progressive method to match signal peaks across multiple GC-MS experiments based on dynamic programming. A sensitive peak similarity function is proposed to balance peak retention time and peak mass spectra similarities. This approach can produce the optimal alignment between an arbitrary number of peak lists, and models explicitly within-state and between-state peak alignment. The accuracy of the proposed method was close to the accuracy of manually-curated peak matching, which required tens of man-hours for the analyzed data sets. The proposed approach may offer significant advantages for processing of high-throughput metabolomics data, especially when large numbers of experimental replicates and multiple sample states are analyzed.