15 November 2017

By mathematical definition, a k-order (or k-dimensional) De Bruijn graph, or ${\rm DBG}(k)$ in brief, over the DNA alphabet uses k-mers at vertices. It has $4^k$ vertices and $4^{k+1}$ edges. DBG(k) has two interesting properties. First, DBG(k) is the line graph of DBG(k-1). Intuitively, this means an edge in DBG(k-1) uniquely corresponds to a vertex in DBG(k) and that the edge adjacency of DBG(k-1) is precisely modeled by vertex adjacency of DBG(k). Second, DBG(k) is both Eulerian and Hamiltonian. A Eulerian path in DBG(k-1) corresponds to a Hamiltonian path in DBG(k).

Given a set of sequences S, let $S(k)$ be the set of k-mers present in sequences in S. We can vertex-induce a subgraph from DBG(k) by keeping vertices in S(k) together with edges connecting vertices in S(k). We denote this graph by DBGv(k|S). DBGv(k|S) can be regarded as an overlap graph consisting of k-mers at vertices with (k-1)-mers overlaps.

Alternatively, we can edge-induce a subgraph by keeping edges in $S(k+1)$ together with incident vertices. We denote this graph by DBGe(k|S). DBGe(k|S) cannot be considerd as an overlap graph because there may be no edges between two k-mers even if they have a (k-1)-mer overlap. To this end, DBGe(k|S) is a subgraph of DBGv(k|S).

DBGv(k|S) is the line graph of DBGe(k-1|S). This property has an important implication in implementation. One common way to store a DBG is to keep a collection of k-mers. We traverse the graph by shifting a k-mer and probing its presence/absence in the collection. Such an algorithm actually implements both DBGv(k|S) and DBGe(k-1|S) at the same time.

In summary, the “De Bruijn graph” in “De Bruijn graph based assembler” is not the De Bruijn graph by mathematical definition. Assembly De Bruijn graphs are subgraphs. There are two different ways to induce such subgraphs, but in implementation, they often behave the same. In DBG, are sequences on vertices or on edges? The correct answer is: depending on how you look at the graph.

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