Dr. Salvador A. Gezan22 June 2021
I recently read a very interesting opinion piece published in The Guardian. The author talks about the impact the Human Genome Project (HGP) has had 20 years after the first draft of the human genome was published. Of course, this has been a great accomplishment, and today it is possible to have whole genome sequencing done in less than one week and for a fraction of the original cost. Now there are many more full genomes available for different animal and plant species. These constitute great scientific and technological advancements, and one cannot stop thinking what will be possible 20 years from now!
Going back to that article, the author states a very critical aspect of the HGP that I copy in the following paragraph:
“The HGP has huge potential benefits for medicine and our understanding of human diversity and origins. But a blizzard of misleading rhetoric surrounded the project, contributing to the widespread and sometimes dangerous misunderstandings about genes that now bedevils the genomic age.“
This project has been surrounded by lots of media attention and, as with many scientific communications, one of the things that concerns me was the expected future benefits from this sequencing project. I am not going into detail about all the promises stated (see original article for more details) but what is alarming is that this genome was sold as a ‘_book of instructions_’ and ‘_nature’s complete genetic blueprint for building a human being_’.
“Misleading rhetoric has fuelled the belief that our genetic code is an ‘instruction book’ – but it’s far more interesting than that…”
It is true that the genomic information is critical for understanding things such as gene diversity, propensity to diseases and deleterious mutations. Moreover, nowadays genomic information is used to make genomic predictions, for example polygenic risk scores for humans and genomic breeding values for plants and animals. But the big fallacy is that a genotype is a ‘blueprint’. Here, I disagree as a genotype without a phenotype does not go very far!
All achievements in genomics, current and future, come from a close connection between phenotypic data and genotypic data. For example, genome-wide association (GWAS) used for finding markers to provide early detection of cancer relies on having thousands of individuals (or samples) identified at the different states of the disease. Likewise, for vegetables, identifying SNP markers for increased supermarket shelf-life requires phenotypic data as they age.
In my view, the main fallacy in many over-promising genomic projects, including HGP, is the belief that genomics is all you need, reflecting a lack of understanding on how critical phenotypic data is. I have even encountered, among breeding managers, the statement that ‘phenotypic data and field testing are no longer required if we have genomic data.’! Genes alone are thousands of small pieces of information, and there are so many complex aspects to consider, such as genes interacting with environment, and other high-order interactions at the gene level (such as dominance and epistasis), that can only be identified and understood with the use of complex computational tools paired with data on each genotype.
“Life is not a readout of genes – it’s a far more interesting, subtle and contingent process than that.”
Genomic data will stay with us for a long time. It has, and will become, cheaper to obtain and at some point it will be treated as a commodity. But good records that evaluate hundreds, thousands or even millions of unique individuals, is expensive and slow to obtain. To highlight a couple of things about this: firstly, increasing precision of phenotyping data will increase heritability; larger heritability values translate into better models, and therefore a higher chance of finding the actual true causal marker of a disease. Secondly, many breeding programs have large quantities of historical data. Often, for this data it is easier today to invest in genotyping than phenotyping, especially if DNA samples have been stored (as with semen or milt in animal breeding), or with DNA directly available from field trials (as with forest breeding programs); therefore, in these cases investment on phenotyping has already been done!
Interestingly, the statistical tools that focus on phenotyping data, are not as ‘sexy’ as the genotyping tools. Here we talk about boring aspects such as: replication, blocking, randomization, and then regression analysis, linear (mixed) models, logistic regression, etc. But all these tools are well known and understood, and there is no excuse to ignore our statistical heritage.
Furthermore, statistical tools such as ASReml-R or Genstat are critical for understanding genotype versus phenotype. In a project such as the HGP, 20 years ago only some doors were opened, and as we collect more and more information, there will be many statistical (and computational) challenges, and we will need to develop new techniques that will make all of those promises from the HGP possible; albeit always closely connected to good phenotypic data, otherwise, this will be a waste of our time!
Salvador Gezan is a statistician/quantitative geneticist with more than 20 years’ experience in breeding, statistical analysis and genetic improvement consulting. He currently works as a Statistical Consultant at VSN International, UK. Dr. Gezan started his career at Rothamsted Research as a biometrician, where he worked with Genstat and ASReml statistical software. Over the last 15 years he has taught ASReml workshops for companies and university researchers around the world.
Dr. Gezan has worked on agronomy, aquaculture, forestry, entomology, medical, biological modelling, and with many commercial breeding programs, applying traditional and molecular statistical tools. His research has led to more than 100 peer reviewed publications, and he is one of the co-authors of the textbook “_Statistical Methods in Biology: Design and Analysis of Experiments and Regression_”.
Dr. Vanessa Cave10 May 2022
The essential role of statistical thinking in animal ethics: dealing with reduction
Having spent over 15 years working as an applied statistician in the biosciences, I’ve come across my fair-share of animal studies. And one of my greatest bugbears is that the full value is rarely extracted from the experimental data collected. This could be because the best statistical approaches haven’t been employed to analyse the data, the findings are selectively or incorrectly reported, other research programmes that could benefit from the data don’t have access to it, or the data aren’t re-analysed following the advent of new statistical methods or tools that have the potential to draw greater insights from it.
An enormous number of scientific research studies involve animals, and with this come many ethical issues and concerns. To help ensure high standards of animal welfare in scientific research, many governments, universities, R&D companies, and individual scientists have adopted the principles of the 3Rs: Replacement, Reduction and Refinement. Indeed, in many countries the tenets of the 3Rs are enshrined in legislation and regulations around the use of animals in scientific research.
|Use methods or technologies that replace or avoid the use of animals.|
|Limit the number of animals used.|
|Refine methods in order to minimise or eliminate negative animal welfare impacts.|
In this blog, I’ll focus on the second principle, Reduction, and argue that statistical expertise is absolutely crucial for achieving reduction.
The aim of reduction is to minimise the number of animals used in scientific research whilst balancing against any additional adverse animal welfare impacts and without compromising the scientific value of the research. This principle demands that before carrying out an experiment (or survey) involving animals, the researchers must consider and implement approaches that both:
Both these considerations involve statistical thinking. Let’s begin by exploring the important role statistics plays in minimising current animal use.
Reduction requires that any experiment (or survey) carried out must use as few animals as possible. However, with too few animals the study will lack the statistical power to draw meaningful conclusions, ultimately wasting animals. But how do we determine how many animals are needed for a sufficiently powered experiment? The necessary starting point is to establish clearly defined, specific research questions. These can then be formulated into appropriate statistical hypotheses, for which an experiment (or survey) can be designed.
Statistical expertise in experimental design plays a pivotal role in ensuring enough of the right type of data are collected to answer the research questions as objectively and as efficiently as possible. For example, sophisticated experimental designs involving blocking can be used to reduce random variation, making the experiment more efficient (i.e., increase the statistical power with fewer animals) as well as guarding against bias. Once a suitable experimental design has been decided upon, a power analysis can be used to calculate the required number of animals (i.e., determine the sample size). Indeed, a power analysis is typically needed to obtain animal ethics approval - a formal process in which the benefits of the proposed research is weighed up against the likely harm to the animals.
Researchers also need to investigate whether pre-existing sources of information or data could be integrated into their study, enabling them to reduce the number of animals required. For example, by means of a meta-analysis. At the extreme end, data relevant to the research questions may already be available, eradicating the need for an experiment altogether!
An obvious mechanism for minimising future animal use is to ensure we do it right the first time, avoiding the need for additional experiments. This is easier said than done; there are many statistical and practical considerations at work here. The following paragraphs cover four important steps in experimental research in which statistical expertise plays a major role: data acquisition, data management, data analysis and inference.
Above, I alluded to the validity of the experimental design. If the design is flawed, the data collected will be compromised, if not essentially worthless. Two common mistakes to avoid are pseudo-replication and the lack of (or poor) randomisation. Replication and randomisation are two of the basic principles of good experimental design. Confusing pseudo-replication (either at the design or analysis stage) for genuine replication will lead to invalid statistical inferences. Randomisation is necessary to ensure the statistical inference is valid and for guarding against bias.
Another extremely important consideration when designing an experiment, and setting the sample size, is the risk and impact of missing data due, for example, to animal drop-out or equipment failure. Missing data results in a loss of statistical power, complicates the statistical analysis, and has the potential to cause substantial bias (and potentially invalidate any conclusions). Careful planning and management of an experiment will help minimise the amount of missing data. In addition, safe-guards, controls or contingencies could be built into the experimental design that help mitigate against the impact of missing data. If missing data does result, appropriate statistical methods to account for it must be applied. Failure to do so could invalidate the entire study.
It is also important that the right data are collected to answer the research questions of interest. That is, the right response and explanatory variables measured at the appropriate scale and frequency. There are many statistical related-questions the researchers must answer, including: what population do they want to make inference about? how generalisable do they need their findings to be? what controllable and uncontrollable variables are there? Answers to these questions not only affects enrolment of animals into the study, but also the conditions they are subjected to and the data that should be collected.
It is essential that the data from the experiment (including meta-data) is appropriately managed and stored to protect its integrity and ensure its usability. If the data get messed up (e.g., if different variables measured on the same animal cannot be linked), is undecipherable (e.g., if the attributes of the variables are unknown) or is incomplete (e.g., if the observations aren’t linked to the structural variables associated with the experimental design), the data are likely worthless. Statisticians can offer invaluable expertise in good data management practices, helping to ensure the data are accurately recorded, the downstream results from analysing the data are reproducible and the data itself is reusable at a later date, by possibly a different group of researchers.
Unsurprisingly, it is also vitally important that the data are analysed correctly, using the methods that draw the most value from it. As expected, statistical expertise plays a huge role here! The results and inference are meaningful only if appropriate statistical methods are used. Moreover, often there is a choice of valid statistical approaches; however, some approaches will be more powerful or more precise than others.
Having analysed the data, it is important that the inference (or conclusions) drawn are sound. Again, statistical thinking is crucial here. For example, in my experience, one all too common mistake in animal studies is to accept the null hypothesis and erroneously claim that a non-significant result means there is no difference (say, between treatment means).
The other important mechanism for minimising future animal use is to share the knowledge and information gleaned. The most basic step here is to ensure that all the results are correctly and non-selectively reported. Reporting all aspects of the trial, including the experimental design and statistical analysis, accurately and completely is crucial for the wider interpretation of the findings, reproducibility and repeatability of the research, and for scientific scrutiny. In addition, all results, including null results, are valuable and should be shared.
Sharing the data (or resources, e.g., animal tissues) also contributes to reduction. The data may be able to be re-used for a different purpose, integrated with other sources of data to provide new insights, or re-analysed in the future using a more advanced statistical technique, or for a different hypothesis.
Another avenue that should also be explored is whether additional data or information can be obtained from the experiment, without incurring any further adverse animal welfare impacts, that could benefit other researchers and/or future studies. For example, to help address a different research question now or in the future. At the outset of the study, researchers must consider whether their proposed study could be combined with another one, whether the research animals could be shared with another experiment (e.g., animals euthanized for one experiment may provide suitable tissue for use in another), what additional data could be collected that may (or is!) of future use, etc.
Statistical thinking clearly plays a fundamental role in reducing the number of animals used in scientific research, and in ensuring the most value is drawn from the resulting data. I strongly believe that statistical expertise must be fully utilised through the duration of the project, from design through to analysis and dissemination of results, in all research projects involving animals to achieving reduction. In my experience, most researchers strive for very high standards of animal ethics, and absolutely do not want to cause unnecessary harm to animals. Unfortunately, the role statistical expertise plays here is not always appreciated or taken advantage of. So next time you’re thinking of undertaking research involving animals, ensure you have expert statistical input!
Dr. Vanessa Cave is an applied statistician interested in the application of statistics to the biosciences, in particular agriculture and ecology, and is a developer of the Genstat statistical software package. She has over 15 years of experience collaborating with scientists, using statistics to solve real-world problems. Vanessa provides expertise on experiment and survey design, data collection and management, statistical analysis, and the interpretation of statistical findings. Her interests include statistical consultancy, mixed models, multivariate methods, statistical ecology, statistical graphics and data visualisation, and the statistical challenges related to digital agriculture.
Vanessa is currently President of the Australasian Region of the International Biometric Society, past-President of the New Zealand Statistical Association, an Associate Editor for the Agronomy Journal, on the Editorial Board of The New Zealand Veterinary Journal and an honorary academic at the University of Auckland. She has a PhD in statistics from the University of St Andrew.
Kanchana Punyawaew and Dr. Vanessa Cave01 March 2021
Mixed models for repeated measures and longitudinal data
The term "repeated measures" refers to experimental designs or observational studies in which each experimental unit (or subject) is measured repeatedly over time or space. "Longitudinal data" is a special case of repeated measures in which variables are measured over time (often for a comparatively long period of time) and duration itself is typically a variable of interest.
In terms of data analysis, it doesn’t really matter what type of data you have, as you can analyze both using mixed models. Remember, the key feature of both types of data is that the response variable is measured more than once on each experimental unit, and these repeated measurements are likely to be correlated.
To illustrate the use of mixed model approaches for analyzing repeated measures, we’ll examine a data set from Landau and Everitt’s 2004 book, “A Handbook of Statistical Analyses using SPSS”. Here, a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial was conducted to determine whether an estrogen treatment reduces post-natal depression. Sixty three subjects were randomly assigned to one of two treatment groups: placebo (27 subjects) and estrogen treatment (36 subjects). Depression scores were measured on each subject at baseline, i.e. before randomization (predep) and at six two-monthly visits after randomization (postdep at visits 1-6). However, not all the women in the trial had their depression score recorded on all scheduled visits.
In this example, the data were measured at fixed, equally spaced, time points. (Visit is time as a factor and nVisit is time as a continuous variable.) There is one between-subject factor (Group, i.e. the treatment group, either placebo or estrogen treatment), one within-subject factor (Visit or nVisit) and a covariate (predep).
Using the following plots, we can explore the data. In the first plot below, the depression scores for each subject are plotted against time, including the baseline, separately for each treatment group.
In the second plot, the mean depression score for each treatment group is plotted over time. From these plots, we can see variation among subjects within each treatment group that depression scores for subjects generally decrease with time, and on average the depression score at each visit is lower with the estrogen treatment than the placebo.
The simplest approach for analyzing repeated measures data is to use a random effects model with subject fitted as random. It assumes a constant correlation between all observations on the same subject. The analysis objectives can either be to measure the average treatment effect over time or to assess treatment effects at each time point and to test whether treatment interacts with time.
In this example, the treatment (Group), time (Visit), treatment by time interaction (Group:Visit) and baseline (predep) effects can all be fitted as fixed. The subject effects are fitted as random, allowing for constant correlation between depression scores taken on the same subject over time.
The code and output from fitting this model in ASReml-R 4 follows;
The output from summary() shows that the estimate of subject and residual variance from the model are 15.10 and 11.53, respectively, giving a total variance of 15.10 + 11.53 = 26.63. The Wald test (from the wald.asreml() table) for predep, Group and Visit are significant (probability level (Pr) ≤ 0.01). There appears to be no relationship between treatment group and time (Group:Visit) i.e. the probability level is greater than 0.05 (Pr = 0.8636).
In practice, often the correlation between observations on the same subject is not constant. It is common to expect that the covariances of measurements made closer together in time are more similar than those at more distant times. Mixed models can accommodate many different covariance patterns. The ideal usage is to select the pattern that best reflects the true covariance structure of the data. A typical strategy is to start with a simple pattern, such as compound symmetry or first-order autoregressive, and test if a more complex pattern leads to a significant improvement in the likelihood.
Note: using a covariance model with a simple correlation structure (i.e. uniform) will provide the same results as fitting a random effects model with random subject.
In ASReml-R 4 we use the corv() function on time (i.e. Visit) to specify uniform correlation between depression scores taken on the same subject over time.
Here, the estimate of the correlation among times (Visit) is 0.57 and the estimate of the residual variance is 26.63 (identical to the total variance of the random effects model, asr1).
Specifying a heterogeneous first-order autoregressive covariance structure is easily done in ASReml-R 4 by changing the variance-covariance function in the residual term from corv() to ar1h().
When the relationship of a measurement with time is of interest, a random coefficients model is often appropriate. In a random coefficients model, time is considered a continuous variable, and the subject and subject by time interaction (Subject:nVisit) are fitted as random effects. This allows the slopes and intercepts to vary randomly between subjects, resulting in a separate regression line to be fitted for each subject. However, importantly, the slopes and intercepts are correlated.
The str() function of asreml() call is used for fitting a random coefficient model;
The summary table contains the variance parameter for Subject (the set of intercepts, 23.24) and Subject:nVisit (the set of slopes, 0.89), the estimate of correlation between the slopes and intercepts (-0.57) and the estimate of residual variance (8.38).
Brady T. West, Kathleen B. Welch and Andrzej T. Galecki (2007). Linear Mixed Models: A Practical Guide Using Statistical Software. Chapman & Hall/CRC, Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.
Brown, H. and R. Prescott (2015). Applied Mixed Models in Medicine. Third Edition. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, England.
Sabine Landau and Brian S. Everitt (2004). A Handbook of Statistical Analyses using SPSS. Chapman & Hall/CRC Press LLC.
Dr. John Rogers17 March 2021
50 years of bioscience statistics
Earlier this year I had an enquiry from Carey Langley of VSNi as to why I had not renewed my Genstat licence. The truth was simple – I have decided to fully retire after 50 years as an agricultural entomologist / applied biologist / consultant. This prompted some reflections about the evolution of bioscience data analysis that I have experienced over that half century, a period during which most of my focus was the interaction between insects and their plant hosts; both how insect feeding impacts on plant growth and crop yield, and how plants impact on the development of the insects that feed on them and on their natural enemies.
My journey into bioscience data analysis started with undergraduate courses in biometry – yes, it was an agriculture faculty, so it was biometry not statistics. We started doing statistical analyses using full keyboard Monroe calculators (for those of you who don’t know what I am talking about, you can find them here). It was a simpler time and as undergraduates we thought it was hugely funny to divide 1 by 0 until the blue smoke came out…
After leaving university in the early 1970s, I started working for the Agriculture Department of an Australian state government, at a small country research station. Statistical analysis was rudimentary to say the least. If you were motivated, there was always the option of running analyses yourself by hand, given the appearance of the first scientific calculators in the early 1970s. If you wanted a formal statistical analysis of your data, you would mail off a paper copy of the raw data to Biometry Branch… and wait. Some months later, you would get back your ANOVA, regression, or whatever the biometrician thought appropriate to do, on paper with some indication of what treatments were different from what other treatments. Dose-mortality data was dealt with by manually plotting data onto probit paper.
In-house ANOVA programs running on central mainframes were a step forward some years later as it at least enabled us to run our own analyses, as long as you wanted to do an ANOVA…. However, it also required a 2 hours’ drive to the nearest card reader, with the actual computer a further 1000 kilometres away.… The first desktop computer I used for statistical analysis was in the early 1980s and was a CP/M machine with two 8-inch floppy discs with, I think, 256k of memory, and booting it required turning a key and pressing the blue button - yes, really! And about the same time, the local agricultural economist drove us crazy extolling the virtues of a program called Lotus 1-2-3!
Having been brought up on a solid diet of the classic texts such as Steele and Torrie, Cochran and Cox and Sokal and Rohlf, the primary frustration during this period was not having ready access to the statistical analyses you knew were appropriate for your data. Typical modes of operating for agricultural scientists in that era were randomised blocks of various degrees of complexity, thus the emphasis on ANOVA in the software that was available in-house. Those of us who also had less-structured ecological data were less well catered for.
My first access to a comprehensive statistics package was during the early to mid-1980s at one of the American Land Grant universities. It was a revelation to be able to run virtually whatever statistical test deemed necessary. Access to non-linear regression was a definite plus, given the non-linear nature of many biological responses. As well, being able to run a series of models to test specific hypotheses opened up new options for more elegant and insightful analyses. Looking back from 2021, such things look very trivial, but compared to where we came from in the 1970s, they were significant steps forward.
My first exposure to Genstat, VSNi’s stalwart statistical software package, was Genstat for Windows, Third Edition (1997). Simple things like the availability of residual plots made a difference for us entomologists, given that much of our data had non-normal errors; it took the guesswork out of whether and what transformations to use. The availability of regressions with grouped data also opened some previously closed doors.
After a deviation away from hands-on research, I came back to biological-data analysis in the mid-2000s and found myself working with repeated-measures and survival / mortality data, so ventured into repeated-measures restricted maximum likelihood analyses and generalised linear mixed models for the first time (with assistance from a couple of Roger Payne’s training courses in Hobart and Queenstown). Looking back, it is interesting how quickly I became blasé about such computationally intensive analyses that would run in seconds on my laptop or desktop, forgetting that I was doing ANOVAs by hand 40 years earlier when John Nelder was developing generalised linear models. How the world has changed!
Of importance to my Genstat experience was the level of support that was available to me as a Genstat licensee. Over the last 15 years or so, as I attempted some of these more complex analyses, my aspirations were somewhat ahead of my abilities, and it was always reassuring to know that Genstat Support was only ever an email away. A couple of examples will flesh this out.
Back in 2008, I was working on the relationship between insect-pest density and crop yield using R2LINES, but had extra linear X’s related to plant vigour in addition to the measure of pest infestation. A support-enquiry email produced an overnight response from Roger Payne that basically said, “Try this”. While I slept, Roger had written an extension to R2LINES to incorporate extra linear X’s. This was later incorporated into the regular releases of Genstat. This work led to the clearer specification of the pest densities that warranted chemical control in soybeans and dry beans (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cropro.2009.08.016 and https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cropro.2009.08.015).
More recently, I was attempting to disentangle the effects on caterpillar mortality of the two Cry insecticidal proteins in transgenic cotton and, while I got close, I would not have got the analysis to run properly without Roger’s support. The data was scant in the bottom half of the overall dose-response curves for both Cry proteins, but it was possible to fit asymptotic exponentials that modelled the upper half of each curve. The final double-exponential response surface I fitted with Roger’s assistance showed clearly that the dose-mortality response was stronger for one of the Cry proteins than the other, and that there was no synergistic action between the two proteins (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cropro.2015.10.013)
One thing that I especially appreciate about having access to a comprehensive statistics package such as Genstat is having the capacity to tease apart biological data to get at the underlying relationships. About 10 years ago, I was asked to look at some data on the impact of cold stress on the expression of the Cry2Ab insecticidal protein in transgenic cotton. The data set was seemingly simple - two years of pot-trial data where groups of pots were either left out overnight or protected from low overnight temperatures by being moved into a glasshouse, plus temperature data and Cry2Ab protein levels. A REML analysis, and some correlations and regressions enabled me to show that cold overnight temperatures did reduce Cry2Ab protein levels, that the effects occurred for up to 6 days after the cold period and that the threshold for these effects was approximately 14 Cº (https://doi.org/10.1603/EC09369). What I took from this piece of work is how powerful a comprehensive statistics package can be in teasing apart important biological insights from what was seemingly very simple data. Note that I did not use any statistics that were cutting edge, just a combination of REML, correlation and regression analyses, but used these techniques to guide the dissection of the relationships in the data to end up with an elegant and insightful outcome.
Looking back over 50 years of work, one thing stands out for me: the huge advances that have occurred in the statistical analysis of biological data has allowed much more insightful statistical analyses that has, in turn, allowed biological scientists to more elegantly pull apart the interactions between insects and their plant hosts.
For me, Genstat has played a pivotal role in that process. I shall miss it.
Dr John Rogers
Research Connections and Consulting
St Lucia, Queensland 4067, Australia
Phone/Fax: +61 (0)7 3720 9065
Mobile: 0409 200 701
Alternate email: D.John.Rogers@gmail.com