Predicting Functional Effects of Synonymous Variants: A Systematic Review and Perspectives

Zishuo Zeng, Yana Bromberg

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

58 Scopus citations


Recent advances in high-throughput experimentation have put the exploration of genome sequences at the forefront of precision medicine. In an effort to interpret the sequencing data, numerous computational methods have been developed for evaluating the effects of genome variants. Interestingly, despite the fact that every person has as many synonymous (sSNV) as non-synonymous single nucleotide variants, our ability to predict their effects is limited. The paucity of experimentally tested sSNV effects appears to be the limiting factor in development of such methods. Here, we summarize the details and evaluate the performance of nine existing computational methods capable of predicting sSNV effects. We used a set of observed and artificially generated variants to approximate large scale performance expectations of these tools. We note that the distribution of these variants across amino acid and codon types suggests purifying evolutionary selection retaining generated variants out of the observed set; i.e., we expect the generated set to be enriched for deleterious variants. Closer inspection of the relationship between the observed variant frequencies and the associated prediction scores identifies predictor-specific scoring thresholds of reliable effect predictions. Notably, across all predictors, the variants scoring above these thresholds were significantly more often generated than observed. which confirms our assumption that the generated set is enriched for deleterious variants. Finally, we find that while the methods differ in their ability to identify severe sSNV effects, no predictor appears capable of definitively recognizing subtle effects of such variants on a large scale.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number914
JournalFrontiers in Genetics
StatePublished - Oct 7 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Molecular Medicine
  • Genetics
  • Genetics(clinical)


  • effect predictors
  • machine learning
  • synonymous variants
  • variant frequency
  • variant functional effect


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