High-throughput sequencing technologies, in particular RNA sequencing (RNA-seq), have become the basic practice for genomic studies in biomedical research. In addition to studying genes individually, for example, through differential expression analysis, investigating co-ordinated expression variations of genes may help reveal the underlying cellular mechanisms to derive better understanding and more effective prognosis and intervention strategies. Although there exists a variety of co-expression network based methods to analyze microarray data for this purpose, instead of blindly extending these methods for microarray data that may introduce unnecessary bias, it is crucial to develop methods well adapted to RNA-seq data to identify the functional modules of genes with similar expression patterns.


We have developed a fully Bayesian covariate-dependent negative binomial factor analysis (dNBFA) method—dNBFA—for RNA-seq count data, to capture coordinated gene expression changes, while considering effects from covariates reflecting different influencing factors. Unlike existing co-expression network based methods, our proposed model does not require multiple ad-hoc choices on data processing, transformation, as well as co-expression measures and can be directly applied to RNA-seq data. Furthermore, being capable of incorporating covariate information, the proposed method can tackle setups with complex confounding factors in different experiment designs. Finally, the natural model parameterization removes the need for a normalization preprocessing step, as commonly adopted to compensate for the effect of sequencing-depth variations. Efficient Bayesian inference of model parameters is derived by exploiting conditional conjugacy via novel data augmentation techniques. Experimental results on several real-world RNA-seq datasets on complex diseases suggest dNBFA as a powerful tool for discovering the gene modules with significant differential expression and meaningful biological insight.

Availability and implementation

dNBFA is implemented in R language and is available at

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License (, which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. For commercial re-use, please contact [email protected]