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Inconsistent representation of variants between variant callers and analyses will magnify discrepancies between them and complicate variant filtering and duplicate removal.

We present a software tool vt normalize that normalizes representation of genetic variants in the VCF. We formally define variant normalization as the consistent representation of genetic variants in an unambiguous and concise way and derive a simple general algorithm to enforce it.

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We demonstrate the inconsistent representation normalise variants across existing sequence analysis tools and show that our tool facilitates integration of diverse variant types and call sets.

The source code is available for download at http: More detailed documentation is available at http: Supplementary data are available at Bioinformatics online.

Methods for calling genetic variants from sequence data are rapidly evolving beyond single nucleotide polymorphisms SNPsto more complex variants such as short insertions and deletions indelsshort tandem repeats STRsmulti-nucleotide polymorphisms MNPsstructural variations SVs and others.

Different sequence analysis software tools often represent the same sequence variant in different ways in a VCF file, making it non-trivial to integrate and compare variants across call sets. However, ekso impact of ambiguous variant representations on the analysis of sequence data is normzlised, and there is no standard guideline for eskl representation of variants.

Here we provide a formal definition and algorithm for variant normalization. Our definition and algorithm enable the representation of variants in an unambiguous, unique way. We show that existing variant calling software tools often do not consistently represent complex variants.

Finally, we demonstrate how our normalization method helped integrate different variant call sets in the Genomes Project Genomes Project Consortium, We define several terms related to variant normalization.


A sequence is defined as a normalided of nucleotides. A reference sequence is a sequence representing the reference genome, and an alternate sequence is a sequence that differs from the reference sequence. A variant is defined as a combination of a reference and at least one alternate sequence. A VCF entry is defined as a combination of i chromosome name, ii base position, iii reference allele and iv alternate alleles, where alleles are sequences of positive length.

A VCF entry represents a variant, if—starting at the chromosome and base position indicated—its reference and alternate alleles exactly match the reference and alternate sequences of a variant while outside the portion represented by VCF is identical to the reference sequence.

Figure 1 illustrates how multiple VCF entries can represent the same variant. Example of VCF entries representing the same variant. Left panel aligns each allele to the reference genome, and the right panel represents the variant in VCF. A is not left-aligned B is neither left-aligned nor parsimonious, C is not parsimonious and D is normalized. A VCF entry is normalized if and only if it is left aligned and parsimonious. A VCF entry is left aligned if and only if its base position is smallest among all potential VCF entries having the same allele length and representing the same variant.

A VCF entry is parsimonious if and only if the entry has the shortest allele length among all VCF entries representing the same variant. The left alignment and parsimony criteria ensure that a variant is unambiguously and concisely represented by a normalized VCF entry see Lemma 1 in Supplementary material.

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Figure 1 D is an example of normalized VCF entry. While variant normalization is now clearly defined, verifying whether a VCF entry is normalized may appear challenging and even complicated. We introduce a necessary and sufficient condition for a VCF entry to be normalized in a principled fashion:. The first condition ensures that the VCF entry is left aligned, and the second condition ensures that the VCF entry is parsimonious among all left aligned entries representing normalosed same variant.

Based on these simplified rules, a VCF entry can be normalized by the procedure described in Algorithm 1. Our algorithm has two parts. The first part focuses, counter-intuitively, on the rightmost base for each allele in bi-allelic or multi-allelic variant. Whenever this base is identical across all alleles, the variant start point can be shifted to the left.


The second part simply trims redundant sequences at the beginning of nodmalised allele, ensuring that all alleles are represented uniquely and as tersely as possible see Supplementary material for detailed proofs.

We applied eskoo normalization method to the call sets contributed to the Genomes phase 3 consensus building process, excluding structural variants. All unnormalized variants were hormalised but not left aligned. Our results highlight the impact of variant normalization on assessing the novelty and quality of non-SNP variants.

Consistent representation of genetic variants is important in many contexts of sequence analysis, including evaluation of variant quality, integration across datasets and functional interpretation of variants.

We demonstrate that a substantial fraction of existing tools and resources need to be normalized, and propose a formal and easy-to-implement standard to represent a variant in VCF, with publicly available implementation. We expect that our principled proposal for variant normalization will facilitate more accurate analysis and integration of genetic variants.

Unified representation of genetic variants

We thank Genomes analysis group for making individual call sets publicly available. National Center for Biotechnology InformationU. Published online Feb Author information Article notes Copyright and License information Disclaimer.

Published by Oxford University Press.

For Permissions, please e-mail: This article has been cited by other articles in PMC. Open in a separate window. We introduce a necessary and sufficient condition for a VCF entry to be normalized in a principled fashion: The alleles end with at least two different nucleotides.

The alleles start with at least two different nucleotides, or the shortest allele has length 1. Algorithm 1 Normalize a VCF entry. Supplementary Material Supplementary Data: Click here to view. Acknowledgements We thank Genomes analysis group for making individual call sets publicly available. References Genomes Project Consortium An integrated map of genetic variation from 1, human genomes.

Nature, 56— Bioinformatics27— Articles from Bioinformatics are provided here courtesy of Oxford University Press. Support Center Support Center. Please review our privacy policy.