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Janssen, Philipp; Kliesmete, Zane; Vieth, Beate; Adiconis, Xian; Simmons, Sean; Marshall, Jamie; McCabe, Cristin; Heyn, Holger; Levin, Joshua Z.; Enard, Wolfgang; Hellmann, Ines (2023): The effect of background noise and its removal on the analysis of single-cell expression data. Genome Biology, 24 (1). ISSN 1474-760X

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In droplet-based single-cell and single-nucleus RNA-seq experiments, not all reads associated with one cell barcode originate from the encapsulated cell. Such background noise is attributed to spillage from cell-free ambient RNA or barcode swapping events.

Here, we characterize this background noise exemplified by three scRNA-seq and two snRNA-seq replicates of mouse kidneys. For each experiment, cells from two mouse subspecies are pooled, allowing to identify cross-genotype contaminating molecules and thus profile background noise. Background noise is highly variable across replicates and cells, making up on average 3–35% of the total counts (UMIs) per cell and we find that noise levels are directly proportional to the specificity and detectability of marker genes. In search of the source of background noise, we find multiple lines of evidence that the majority of background molecules originates from ambient RNA. Finally, we use our genotype-based estimates to evaluate the performance of three methods (CellBender, DecontX, SoupX) that are designed to quantify and remove background noise. We find that CellBender provides the most precise estimates of background noise levels and also yields the highest improvement for marker gene detection. By contrast, clustering and classification of cells are fairly robust towards background noise and only small improvements can be achieved by background removal that may come at the cost of distortions in fine structure.

Our findings help to better understand the extent, sources and impact of background noise in single-cell experiments and provide guidance on how to deal with it.

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