Evaluating the functional impact of genetic variants with COPE software


Dr Ge Gao, developer of the COPE-PCG software tool, talks here about his tool and how it can assist researchers to analyze sequencing data.

COPE: A new framework of context-oriented prediction for variant effects

Evaluating functional impacts of genetic variants is a key step in genomic studies. Whilst most popular variant annotation tools take a variant-centric strategy and assess the functional consequence of each variant independently, multiple variants in the same gene may interfere with each other and have different effects in combination than individually (e.g., a frameshift caused by an indel can be “rescued” by another downstream variant). The COPE framework, Context-Oriented Predictor for variant Effect, was developed to accurately annotate multiple co-occurring variants.

This new gene-centric annotation tool integrates the entire sequence context to evaluate the bona fide impact of multiple intra-genic variants in a context-sensitive approach.

COPE handles complex effects of multiple variants

Unlike the current variant-centric approach that assesses the functional consequence of each variant independently, COPE takes each functional element as the basic annotation unit and considers that multiple variants in the same functional element may interfere with each other and have different effects in combination than individually (complementary rescue effect).

cope-fig1overview-omictoolsOverview of COPE: COPE uses each transcript as a basic annotation unit. The variant mapping step identifies variants within transcripts. The coding region inference step removes introns from each transcript; all possible splicing patterns are taken into consideration for splice-altering transcripts (in this case, the red dot indicates a splice acceptor site SNP, and intron retention and exon skipping are taken into consideration). The sequence comparison step compares a ‘mutant peptide’ against a reference protein sequence to obtain the final amino acid alteration.

Applying COPE software to genomic data

Screening the official 1000 Genomes variant set, COPE identified a considerable number of false-positive Loss-of-Function calls for 23.21% splice-disrupting variants, 6.45% frameshift indels and 2.10% stop-gained variants, as well as several false-negative Loss-of-Function variants in 38 genes.

To the best of our knowledge, COPE is the first fully gene-centric tool for annotating the effects of variants in a context-sensitive approach.


Schematic diagram of typical types of annotation corrections implemented in COPE. A rescued stop-gained SNV indicates that another SNV (‘A’ to ‘C’) in the same codon rescues a variant-centric stop-gained SNV (‘A’ to ‘T’). Stop-gained MNV indicates that two or more SNVs result in a stop codon (‘A’ to ‘T’ and ‘C’ to ‘G’). A rescued frameshift indel indicates that another indel in the same haplotype recovers the original open reading frame. A splicing-rescued stop-gained/frameshift variant indicates that a stop-gained or frameshift variant is rescued by a novel splicing isoform. A rescued splice-disrupting variant indicates that a splice-disrupting variant is rescued by a nearby cryptic site (as shown in the figure) or a novel splice site. The asterisk in the figure indicates a stop codon.

Evaluating the quality of COPE: availability, usability and flexibility

  • Free software
  • Publically available online server and stand-alone package for large-scale analysis


Screenshot of the COPE web server. Example of input (A) and annotation by COPE (B)

  • Software documentation: A detailed guideline for installation and setup is available
  • Recent updates: COPE-PCG has been online since June 2016, and COPE-TFBS since March 2017 on a new website
  • Analysis of protein-coding genes (COPE-PCG), transcription factor binding sites (COPE-TFBS) and more… the COPE framework may also be extended and adapted to non-coding RNAs and miRNAs in a near future.

About the author

Dr Ge Gao is principal investigator at the Center for Bioinformatics of Peking University. His team focuses primarily on developing novel computational techniques to analyze, integrate and visualize high-throughput biological data effectively and efficiently, with applications for deciphering the function and evolution of gene regulatory system. Dr Ge Gao is specialized in large-scale data mining, using a combination of statistical learning, high-performance computing, and data visualizing.


Cheng et al., 2017. Accurately annotate compound effects of genetic variants using a context-sensitive framework. Nucleic Acids Research.

Cheng et al., in preparation. Systematically identify and annotate multiple-variant compound effect at transcription factor binding sites in the human genome.

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