Journal Article

Efficient exact motif discovery

Tobias Marschall and Sven Rahmann

in Bioinformatics

Volume 25, issue 12, pages i356-i364
Published in print June 2009 | ISSN: 1367-4803
Published online May 2009 | e-ISSN: 1460-2059 | DOI:

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Motivation: The motif discovery problem consists of finding over-represented patterns in a collection of biosequences. It is one of the classical sequence analysis problems, but still has not been satisfactorily solved in an exact and efficient manner. This is partly due to the large number of possibilities of defining the motif search space and the notion of over-representation. Even for well-defined formalizations, the problem is frequently solved in an ad hoc manner with heuristics that do not guarantee to find the best motif.

Results: We show how to solve the motif discovery problem (almost) exactly on a practically relevant space of IUPAC generalized string patterns, using the p-value with respect to an i.i.d. model or a Markov model as the measure of over-representation. In particular, (i) we use a highly accurate compound Poisson approximation for the null distribution of the number of motif occurrences. We show how to compute the exact clump size distribution using a recently introduced device called probabilistic arithmetic automaton (PAA). (ii) We define two p-value scores for over-representation, the first one based on the total number of motif occurrences, the second one based on the number of sequences in a collection with at least one occurrence. (iii) We describe an algorithm to discover the optimal pattern with respect to either of the scores. The method exploits monotonicity properties of the compound Poisson approximation and is by orders of magnitude faster than exhaustive enumeration of IUPAC strings (11.8 h compared with an extrapolated runtime of 4.8 years). (iv) We justify the use of the proposed scores for motif discovery by showing our method to outperform other motif discovery algorithms (e.g. MEME, Weeder) on benchmark datasets. We also propose new motifs on Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

Availability and Implementation: The method has been implemented in Java. It can be obtained from


Journal Article.  8077 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Bioinformatics and Computational Biology

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