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ACE: Explaining cluster from an adversarial perspective

Yang Lu · Timothy C Yu · Giancarlo Bonora · William Stafford Noble


A common workflow in single-cell RNA-seq analysis is to project the data to a latent space, cluster the cells in that space, and identify sets of marker genes that explain the differences among the discovered clusters. A primary drawback to this three-step procedure is that each step is carried out independently, thereby neglecting the effects of the nonlinear embedding and inter-gene dependencies on the selection of marker genes. Here we propose an integrated deep learning framework, Adversarial Clustering Explanation (ACE), that bundles all three steps into a single workflow. The method thus moves away from the notion of "marker genes" to instead identify a panel of explanatory genes. This panel may include genes that are not only enriched but also depleted relative to other cell types, as well as genes that exhibit differences between closely related cell types. Empirically, we demonstrate that ACE is able to identify gene panels that are both highly discriminative and nonredundant, and we demonstrate the applicability of ACE to an image recognition task.

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