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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

How many human genes can be defined as housekeeping with current expression data?

Jiang Zhu12, Fuhong He12, Shuhui Song12, Jing Wang1* and Jun Yu1*

Author Affiliations

1 Key Laboratory of Genome Sciences and Information, Beijing Institute of Genomics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China

2 Graduate University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China

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BMC Genomics 2008, 9:172  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-9-172

Published: 16 April 2008



Housekeeping (HK) genes are ubiquitously expressed in all tissue/cell types and constitute a basal transcriptome for the maintenance of basic cellular functions. Partitioning transcriptomes into HK and tissue-specific (TS) genes relatively is fundamental for studying gene expression and cellular differentiation. Although many studies have aimed at large-scale and thorough categorization of human HK genes, a meaningful consensus has yet to be reached.


We collected two latest gene expression datasets (both EST and microarray data) from public databases and analyzed the gene expression profiles in 18 human tissues that have been well-documented by both two data types. Benchmarked by a manually-curated HK gene collection (HK408), we demonstrated that present data from EST sampling was far from saturated, and the inadequacy has limited the gene detectability and our understanding of TS expressions. Due to a likely over-stringent threshold, microarray data showed higher false negative rate compared with EST data, leading to a significant underestimation of HK genes. Based on EST data, we found that 40.0% of the currently annotated human genes were universally expressed in at least 16 of 18 tissues, as compared to only 5.1% specifically expressed in a single tissue. Our current EST-based estimate on human HK genes ranged from 3,140 to 6,909 in number, a ten-fold increase in comparison with previous microarray-based estimates.


We concluded that a significant fraction of human genes, at least in the currently annotated data depositories, was broadly expressed. Our understanding of tissue-specific expression was still preliminary and required much more large-scale and high-quality transcriptomic data in future studies. The new HK gene list categorized in this study will be useful for genome-wide analyses on structural and functional features of HK genes.