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Predicted genes from the Amblyomma americanum draft genome assembly

We previously released a draft genome assembly for the lone star tick, A. americanum. We've now predicted genes from this assembly to use for downstream functional characterization and comparative genomics efforts.
Published onFeb 24, 2024
Predicted genes from the Amblyomma americanum draft genome assembly
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We generated a whole-genome assembly for the lone star tick to serve as a reference for downstream efforts where whole-genome maps are required. We created our assembly using pooled DNA from salivary glands of 50 adult female ticks that we sequenced using PacBio HiFi reads.

What’s new?

We previously released a draft genome assembly and a long-read transcriptome assembly from the lone star tick, Amblyomma americanum. This assembly was approximately 90% complete and assembled into ~30,000 contigs. We decided to move forward with predicting genes from our draft genome assembly since annotation is limited for this tick species.

In this pub, we describe how we approached this through de novo transcriptome assembly, microbial decontamination, gene prediction, and validation analyses, which resulted in a set of predicted genes that is 81.5% complete and 8.7% redundant. We were encouraged that our set of gene models fell in the middle of the pack compared to those available for other tick species. Additionally, comparing the length distributions of our predicted proteins to protein hits in other tick references gave us confidence that our predicted gene models are around the expected lengths. Given the additional sequencing data and effort we’d need to improve the fragmented nature of the assembly and the encouraging sign that our predictions are of similar quality to other tick species, we decided to move forward with downstream functional analyses.

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The approach

SHOW ME THE DATA: Access our data, including the decontaminated draft assembly, transcriptome assembly data, and predicted genes and proteins, on Zenodo.

To make our Amblyomma americanum genome useful, we next needed to predict which stretches of DNA correspond to genes. We first performed de novo transcriptome assembly using both publicly available A. americanum RNA-seq data and our long-read transcriptome assembly to determine which genes are expressed and the boundaries of the exons and introns in those genes. We then decontaminated the genome by removing microbial contigs. Using this decontaminated genome and transcriptome assembly, we predicted gene open reading frames and validated our predictions against proteins from other tick species.

De novo transcriptome assembly

To improve our annotation of the A. americanum genome, we first used publicly available RNA-seq data to build a de novo transcriptome (Table 1). RNA-seq data is commonly incorporated into gene prediction pipelines because it provides evidence for exons and splice sites [1]. One can either directly map RNA-seq reads to the genome or assemble them into transcripts and align them to the genome [1]. Since we used a combination of short- and long-read (PacBio IsoSeq) RNA-seq data, we chose the de novo assembly strategy for incorporating RNA-seq data into gene predictions.

SRA study accession

Number of samples

Sequencing type




Paired-end short-read (300 bp)




Paired-end short-read (200 bp)




Paired-end short-read (200 bp)


SRP052078; SRP052091; SRP052108; SRP052106; SRP052114; SRP052123; SRP052145; SRP052154


Paired-end short-read (152 bp)




PacBio IsoSeq


Table 1. Summary of publicly available RNA-seq data used to build the A. americanum de novo transcriptome.

View the full metadata table for the samples we analyzed in this workflow.

For short-read data, we followed pre-processing recommendations as outlined in the “Eel Pond Protocol” for de novo transcriptome assembly [6][7]. This approach is optimized for RNA-seq data from non-model organisms. It removes sequencing errors that could fragment the assembly while retaining low-coverage reads that could lead to a more complete assembly. We downloaded each sample from the NCBI Sequence Read Archive (SRA) using the fasterq-dump command in the SRA toolkit (version 3.0.6) [8], quality- and adapter-trimmed the reads using fastp (version 0.23.4) [9], and k-mer-trimmed and digitally normalized reads using the script in khmer (version 3.0.0a3) [10]. Because the output of this command is interleaved reads, we split paired reads into separate files using the command in the BBMap package (version 39.01) [11].

Given that we combined RNA-seq data from multiple studies that had different variables (e.g., sex, tissue) or treatments, and that the complexity of RNA-seq data can impact the resultant quality of assembly [12], we combined samples into 20 assembly groups that reflected similar underlying biological conditions. Each group was then assembled separately.

Organizing samples into assembly groups was a difficult decision to make, as increasing the number of assembly groups made merging transcriptomes difficult. The alternative would have been assembling all short reads from all samples simultaneously. However, we reasoned that since we already needed to merge our short-read assembly with our long-read assembly, and because we wanted to use multiple short-read assemblers to improve the completeness of our assembly [13], this problem was unavoidable and would not be more difficult to solve with more assemblies.

We followed an assembly- and transcriptome-merging routine that is similar to the Oyster River Protocol for de novo transcriptome assembly [6]. We assembled each assembly group using Trinity (version 2.15.1) [14] and rnaSPAdes (version 3.15.5) [15]. Then, we combined and deduplicated these assemblies as well as the long-read assembly [5] together using a modified version of the orthofuser approach implemented in the Oyster River Protocol [6].

View the workflow code for our transcriptome assembly approach (DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.10601710).

We modified our approach to accommodate a long-read assembly and to work around issues we encountered with the scalability of the mapping step in the TransRate tool [16]. Our first step made each contig name unique by prepending the assembly group to the name using the command in BBMap (version 39.01) [10]. Next, we used mmseqs easy-cluster in the MMSseqs2 package (version 14.7e284) [17] to remove perfect duplicates across all transcriptomes. We used the subseq command in the seqtk package (version 1.4) to remove duplicates [18] and removed transcripts shorter than 75 base pairs (bp) using the seq command in the seqkit package (version 2.5.1) [19]. Next, we used OrthoFinder (version 2.5.5) in DNA mode (-d) and with an MCL parameter of 12 to group transcripts into orthologous groups by assembly [20]. These groups represent transcripts that encode the same isoform or gene. To select a representative transcript from each group, we first scored the quality of each short-read transcript using the TransRate tool [6][16]. We then selected at least one transcript from each group by selecting either all long-read transcripts from the group if any long-read transcripts were present, or selecting the transcript with the highest overall score.

We used this selection approach because we reasoned that long-read transcripts are more likely to be high-quality than short-read transcripts and because we were unable to score the long-read transcripts using TransRate due to limitations in short-read mapping. This filtering approach produced our first merged transcriptome, but we then “rescued” potentially missing transcripts that were filtered out by these steps using DIAMOND BLASTx (version 2.1.8) [21] annotations against the SwissProt database as performed in orthofuser [6]. Lastly, we de-duplicated this final set of transcripts at 98% identity using cd-blastx in the CD-HIT package (version 4.8.1) [22].

After assembly and merging, we next decontaminated the transcriptome. To do this, we first identified contaminant genomes in our transcriptome by running sourmash gather (-k 51, --scaled 10000) (version 4.8.3) against k-mer databases of bacterial, archaeal, protozoan, fungal, mammalian, other vertebrate, and plant genomes in GenBank [23][24]. We then downloaded the genomes for contaminants using ncbi-genome-download (version 0.3.3) [25], and used the BLAST package (version 2.14.1) to make a BLAST database from these genomes (makeblastdb) and BLAST (blastn) each transcript against the database [26]. We removed transcripts that had a BLAST hit greater than length 100 nucleotides that matched at least 10% of the transcript with an identity greater than or equal to 80%. We removed them from the transcriptome using the subseq command in the seqtk package (version 1.4) [16].

To evaluate the transcriptome, we performed four checks. First, we quantified the fraction of reads that mapped back to the assembly using the quant command in the Salmon package (version 1.10.2) [28]. Next, we used TransRate (without mapping mode) [6][16] to produce transcriptome quality statistics. Then, we used dammit [29] to orchestrate annotation including ORF detection with TransDecoder [30] — we used our fork to patch small bug fixes in the dammit code base. Last, we performed quality assessment via BUSCO (version 5.5.0) using transcriptome mode (-m tran) against the arachnida_odb10 lineage [31]. This is a BUSCO database containing 2,934 marker genes that have a single copy in most genomes in the Arachnida taxonomic class, of which A. americanum is a member.

We’ve documented our entire approach as a Snakemake workflow (version 7.31.0) [32] in this file.

View the workflow code for our transcriptome assembly approach.

Microbial decontamination of the genome assembly

Before predicting genes, we identified and removed bacterial contigs that could either be from endosymbiotic taxa or contaminants. To assign taxonomy to each contig, we created a DIAMOND database of our existing clustered NCBI-nr database [33], and ran diamond blastx using this database against the A. americanum contigs with DIAMOND (version 2.1.8) [21]. We then used the blast2lca program of MEGAN (version 6.25.3) [34] and the corresponding NCBI-nr MEGAN mapping file to parse the DIAMOND BLASTx results and produce a TSV with a taxonomic assignment per contig. We then calculated the length of each contig using Biopython (version 1.81) [35] and incorporated this with taxonomy information for contigs classified as bacteria or unknown. Using the R packages tidyverse (version 2.0.0) [36] and BioStrings (version 2.68.1) [37], we selected the bacterial and unknown contigs longer than 1,000 bp to remove from the assembly.

View our code for microbial decontamination of the genome and gene model prediction, plus comparative analyses to tick references (DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.10694669).

Gene prediction and validation

To predict gene models and proteins for the A. americanum draft genome, we used the nf-core genomeannotator workflow [38], which is still under active development. We specifically accessed the latest dev branch from a specific commit and launched the workflow according to these commands. The pipeline first filters contigs by size with GAAS (version 1.20) [39] using a default minimum contig size of 5,000 bp to consider for gene model prediction. We then identified and masked the repeat sequences using RepeatModeler (version 2.0.2) [40] and RepeatMasker (version 4.1.2-p1) [41]. We first cleaned and reformatted the assembled transcripts with GAAS (version 1.2.0) [39] and exonerate (version 2.4.0) [42], then mapped to the repeat-masked assembly with minimap2 (version 2.22) [43]. We used the mapped reads to create the GFF hints input to AUGUSTUS (version 3.4.0) [44], which we used for initial gene model prediction. We used these gene models as input to EVidenceModeler (version 1.1.0) [45] to produce a set of non-redundant proteins. 

To validate the set of proteins output by EVidenceModeler, we first ran BUSCO (version 5.5.0) [31] in protein mode using the arachnida_odb10 lineage. To compare the predicted proteins to other tick species, we obtained available proteins or predicted proteins from transcriptomes of various tick species downloaded from accessions listed in Table 2 using our “protein-data-curation” Snakemake workflow. Briefly, proteomes or assembled transcripts are downloaded by the provided URL link. For assembled transcriptomes, TransDecoder (version 5.7.1) [29] predicts coding regions within transcripts. For species with multiple listed proteomes or transcriptomes, the workflow merges and clusters these at 90% sequence identity with CD-HIT (version 4.8.1) [46]. It also filters proteins to remove any protein smaller than 25 amino acids, and if isoform information is provided, it only keeps the longest isoform for a given protein. Additionally, the pipeline adds functional annotation information for each species’ proteome through KEGG annotations with KofamScan (version 1.3.0) [47], EGGNOG annotations with eggNOG-mapper (version 2.1.10) [48], and predicts signal peptides with DeepSig (version 1.2.5) [49]

View our code for preprocessing existing proteomes/assembled transcriptomes to obtain uniform proteome datasets to compare to our predicted A. americanum proteins (DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.10607898).


Total protein count



Dermacentor andersoni


Existing proteome


Dermacentor silvarum


Existing proteome


Haemaphysalis longicornis


Existing proteome


Hyalomma asiaticum


Existing proteome


Ixodes persulcatus


Existing proteome


Ixodes scapularis


Existing proteome


Rhipicephalus microplus


Existing proteome


Rhipicephalus sanguineus


Existing proteome


Amblyomma americanum


Genome with transcriptome assembly

This study

Amblyomma sculptum




Dermacentor variabilis




Ixodes ricinus




Ornithodoros erraticus




Ornithodoros moubata




Ornithodoros turicata




Table 2. Tick species accession information.

For each tick species, we report the number of predicted proteins from our pipeline and whether we obtained existing proteomes directly or predicted proteins from assembled transcriptome accessions. For proteins obtained from existing accessions, we downloaded all proteins from the RefSeq protein accession for that species, except for Ixodes scapularis, where we downloaded the proteins from the UniProt proteome for that organism. For species where we predicted proteins from transcriptome assemblies, we accessed the raw assembled RNA-seq contigs from the NCBI transcriptome shotgun assembly database. For some species, we used multiple study accessions to predict proteins.

We then compared these tick proteomes against the filtered set of A. americanum proteins that we’d also clustered at 90% sequence identity and from which we removed proteins smaller than 25 amino acids. Therefore, statistics and figures of these comparisons are from proteomes that have all been filtered the same way. We created a workflow that makes pairwise diamond blastp comparisons with DIAMOND (version 2.1.8) [21] for every tick species proteome against the A. americanum proteome. Although each protein from a reference tick species was only used once in the diamond blastp search, some A. americanum proteins had multiple hits. We did not dereplicate these instances or pick the best hit since we wanted the diamond blastp comparisons for quick validation checks of total protein hits and length distributions of those hits. The workflow also calculates BUSCO quality statistics for each input proteome, where we ran BUSCO (version 5.5.0) [31] in protein mode using the arachnida_odb10 lineage. To parse and plot results from the diamond blastp results, we used the R packages tidyverse (version 2.0.0) [36], ggridges (version 0.5.4) [50], viridis (version 0.6.4) [51], and ggpubr (version 0.6.0) [52].

Additional methods

We used ChatGPT to help write and clean up code.

The data

SHOW ME THE DATA: Access our data, including the decontaminated draft assembly, transcriptome assembly data, and predicted genes and proteins, on Zenodo.

De novo assembly produced a near-complete transcriptome

To improve the genome annotation, we used publicly available Amblyomma americanum RNA-seq data to build a transcriptome. RNA-seq improves eukaryotic genome annotation by providing additional evidence for gene models [1]. We assembled a transcriptome from 48 short-read RNA-seq samples and one long-read transcriptome (Table 1). We report quality statistics about the transcriptome below, in Table 3. The transcriptome contained 1.06 million transcripts that encoded 319,324 predicted coding domain sequences. The transcriptome was 97.5% complete (86.3% duplicated).



Tool used

Number of transcripts

1,061,354 contigs


Number of base pairs

974,803,561 bp


Minimum transcript length

75 bp


Maximum transcript length

36,548 bp


Median transcript length

284 bp


Mean transcript length

918 bp


N50 length

3,176 bp


Number of 25-mers

947,208,357 k-mers


Number of unique 25-mers

428,744,143 k-mers


Number ambiguous bases

6,482 bases





GC percentage



Complete single-copy genes

2,859 (97.5%)


Complete and single-copy

328 (11.2%)


Complete and duplicated

2,531 (86.3%)


Fragmented single-copy genes

25 (0.9%)


Missing single-copy genes

50 (1.6%)


Table 3. Transcriptome quality metrics.

These metrics highlight that the transcriptome is highly redundant. This likely arises from multiple factors. The A. americanum RNA-seq samples are highly heterogeneous and variability may come from pooling samples before sequencing. There are also differences in the populations sampled — the RNA-seq samples we used to build this transcriptome come from ticks that originated from multiple independent populations around the United States, which studies have shown display high heterogeneity [53]. We don’t think that this interferes with the usefulness of the transcriptome for gene model prediction in the genome, but we encourage others to exercise caution for other downstream use cases, such as differential gene expression transcript quantification.

Draft gene predictions and validations from a decontaminated assembly

We took the pseudohaploid, deduplicated draft genome assembly and identified and removed contigs classified as bacterial or unknown (Figure 1). This step removed 1,268 contigs for a new filtered assembly with 36,883 contigs. We then used this filtered assembly as the input for the nf-core/genomeannotator workflow from this specific commit to predict gene models and proteins.

Figure 1

Contigs identified as bacterial or unknown and corresponding lengths.

Color corresponds to the class of bacteria that we taxonomically identified for that contig.

The set of 34,557 proteins we obtained had a BUSCO completeness of 81.5% and duplication of 8.4% against the arachnida_odb10 lineage. We then compared a reduced set of 28,319 predicted proteins that were filtered for a minimum length of 25 amino acids and clustered at 90% identity against filtered proteins we obtained or predicted from 14 other tick species. We checked: 1) BUSCO quality scores across tick references compared to the A. americanum proteome, 2) the number of identified homologs against other tick species, and 3) the distribution of alignment lengths of identified homologs to see if there is a high percentage of fragmented proteins in our dataset. From the BUSCO quality score comparisons, our A. americanum predicted proteins aren’t as complete as those from other tick genome assembly efforts that were more curated and less fragmented than our draft genome (Figure 2). However, we’re encouraged that the quality of predicted proteins for A. americanum falls somewhere in the middle of the pack when we compare to other tick assembly and annotation efforts.

Figure 2

BUSCO scores for filtered tick proteomes compared to the filtered Amblyomma americanum proteome using the arachnida_odb10 lineage.

We curated proteins either directly from genome or assembled transcriptome references for each tick species listed in Table 2.

We then compared proteins from A. americanum to aligned proteins in the other tick species with pairwise diamond blastp comparisons. We calculated both the proportion of proteins from other tick species that had hits in the A. americanum proteome relative to the total number of predicted A. americanum proteins. The proportion of proteins from other tick species with hits relative to the total number of proteins from that tick species’ proteome (Figure 3). For example, we predicted proteins from the tick Amblyomma sculptum based on a transcriptome assembly, and this was one of the least complete proteomes in our reference set (we’ve highlighted the A. sculptum points with red squares in Figure 3).

We identified hits for about 30% of the A. americanum proteome in A. sculptum. Conversely, 92% of A. sculptum proteins have a hit in the A. americanum proteome. We have represented this relationship between protein hits in both directions in Figure 3 to demonstrate that the relationship between the number of proteins is likely due to both the quality of the reference proteome and the evolutionary relatedness of that tick species to A. americanum.

Figure 3

Distribution of protein hits from 14 other tick species relative to either the total number of proteins in the A. americanum proteome or to the total number in the corresponding tick reference proteome.

Points are colored by whether the proteome originated from a genome or if we predicted it from an assembled transcriptome. We’ve highlighted the points representing the A. sculptum proteome with red squares.

We then checked the length of our predicted proteins compared to the proteins from the other 14 tick species. For each hit, we divided the length of the A. americanum source protein by the length of the protein hit from one of the reference species. We filtered for proteins where this proportion was less than or equal to one, specifically looking for proteins that are highly fragmented in A. americanum or much shorter than the corresponding hit in the other species (Figure 4). Depending on the reference we compared to, 46–82% of protein hits from A. americanum were at least 90% the length of the reference protein. A. sculptum had the most proteins of similar length to matches in the A. americanum genome, which makes sense this is the most closely related species in our reference set. Encouragingly, this shows that compared to most tick references, the majority of A. americanum proteins are at least 90% the length of the reference hit protein and that there are not many fragmented proteins in our dataset compared to the references.

Figure 4

Distribution of protein lengths for A. americanum for hit proteins among 14 tick reference species.

Plots are separated by whether the proteins for the reference tick species were obtained directly from the genome or predicted from the assembled transcriptome of the species. Length proportion is calculated by the length of the source A. americanum protein divided by the length of the corresponding hit protein in that tick species. Color corresponds to the density of proteins with the calculated length proportion.

Key takeaways

We produced gene predictions from our Amblyomma americanum draft genome assembly with 81.5% completeness and 8.4% redundancy. Given that our draft assembly is quite fragmented (30,000 contigs with 90% completeness), we think we’ve obtained the best possible gene models we can using available tools without drastically increasing redundancy levels. The quality of our gene predictions is similar to those of other tick species. We’ve therefore decided to move forward with more intentional functional annotation and comparative analyses.

SHOW ME THE DATA: Access our data, including the decontaminated draft assembly, transcriptome assembly data, and predicted genes and proteins, on Zenodo.

Next steps

In the future, if we undertake similar de novo transcriptome assembly efforts, we’d like to improve upon this approach. We think the deduplication procedure was unnecessarily complicated and sub-optimal — our BUSCO scores show a very duplicated transcriptome. However, TransRate was limited both by the number of contigs in the transcriptome that it could score in a given run (it did not work with one million transcripts) and by the number of short reads it could align (it failed with ~10 GB R1/R2 files), making it impossible to score all transcripts in a single TransRate run, as is implemented in the original orthofuser protocol. We’re considering limiting ourselves to a single transcriptome assembler that outputs isoform information (Trinity or rnaSPAdes), but this will only work as a complete solution if we don’t have a long-read transcriptome to combine with. We’re also considering using a de Bruijn graph approach to identify transcripts with shared sequencing content, but if we take this approach, we’ll need to validate it carefully.

Share your thoughts!

Watch a video tutorial on making a PubPub account and commenting. Please feel free to add line-by-line comments anywhere within this text, provide overall feedback by commenting in the box at the bottom of the page, or use the URL for this page in a tweet about this work. Please make all feedback public so other readers can benefit from the discussion.

  • Contributors

    • Feridun Mert Celebi

      • Supervision

    • Seemay Chou

      • Supervision

    • Rachel J. Dutton

      • Data Curation

    • Megan L. Hochstrasser

      • Editing, Visualization

    • Elizabeth A. McDaniel

      • Formal Analysis, Software, Validation, Visualization, Writing

    • Austin H. Patton

      • Data Curation

    • Taylor Reiter

      • Conceptualization, Data Curation, Formal Analysis, Software, Validation, Writing

    • Emily C.P. Weiss

      • Software

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