Molecular entities work in concert as a system and mediate phenotypic outcomes and disease states. There has been recent interest in modelling the associations between molecular entities from their observed expression profiles as networks using a battery of algorithms. These networks have proven to be useful abstractions of the underlying pathways and signalling mechanisms. Noise is ubiquitous in molecular data and can have a pronounced effect on the inferred network. Noise can be an outcome of several factors including: inherent stochastic mechanisms at the molecular level, variation in the abundance of molecules, heterogeneity, sensitivity of the biological assay or measurement artefacts prevalent especially in high-throughput settings. The present study investigates the impact of discrepancies in noise variance on pair-wise dependencies, conditional dependencies and constraint-based Bayesian network structure learning algorithms that incorporate conditional independence tests as a part of the learning process. Popular network motifs and fundamental connections, namely: (a) common-effect, (b) three-chain, and (c) coherent type-I feed-forward loop (FFL) are investigated. The choice of these elementary networks can be attributed to their prevalence across more complex networks. Analytical expressions elucidating the impact of discrepancies in noise variance on pairwise dependencies and conditional dependencies for special cases of these motifs are presented. Subsequently, the impact of noise on two popular constraint-based Bayesian network structure learning algorithms such as Grow-Shrink (GS) and Incremental Association Markov Blanket (IAMB) that implicitly incorporate tests for conditional independence is investigated. Finally, the impact of noise on networks inferred from publicly available single cell molecular expression profiles is investigated. While discrepancies in noise variance are overlooked in routine molecular network inference, the results presented clearly elucidate their non-trivial impact on the conclusions that in turn can challenge the biological significance of the findings. The analytical treatment and arguments presented are generic and not restricted to molecular data sets.

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Published in PLOS One, v. 8, issue. 12, e80735.

© 2013 Nagarajan, Scutari. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

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