The main challenge in cancer genomics is to distinguish the driver genes from passenger or neutral genes. Cancer genomes exhibit extensive mutational heterogeneity that no two genomes contain exactly the same somatic mutations. Such mutual exclusivity (ME) of mutations has been observed in cancer data and is associated with functional pathways. Analysis of ME patterns may provide useful clues to driver genes or pathways and may suggest novel understandings of cancer progression. In this article, we consider a probabilistic, generative model of ME, and propose a powerful and greedy algorithm to select the mutual exclusivity gene sets. The greedy method includes a pre-selection procedure and a stepwise forward algorithm which can significantly reduce computation time. Power calculations suggest that the new method is efficient and powerful for one ME set or multiple ME sets with overlapping genes. We illustrate this approach by analysis of the whole-exome sequencing data of cancer types from TCGA.

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