How should I interpret VCF files produced by the GATK?

Geraldine_VdAuweraGeraldine_VdAuwera Posts: 6,462Administrator, GATK Developer admin
edited August 25 in FAQs

This document describes "regular" (variants-only) VCF files. For information on the gVCF format produced by HaplotypeCaller in -ERC GVCF mode, please see this companion document.

1. What is VCF?

VCF stands for Variant Call Format. It is a standardized text file format for representing SNP, indel, and structural variation calls. See this page for detailed specifications.

VCF is the primary (and only well-supported) format used by the GATK for variant calls. We prefer it above all others because while it can be a bit verbose, the VCF format is very explicit about the exact type and sequence of variation as well as the genotypes of multiple samples for this variation.

That being said, this highly detailed information can be challenging to understand. The information provided by the GATK tools that infer variation from NGS data, such as the UnifiedGenotyper and the HaplotypeCaller, is especially complex. This document describes some specific features and annotations used in the VCF files output by the GATK tools.

2. Basic structure of a VCF file

The following text is a valid VCF file describing the first few SNPs found by the UG in a deep whole genome data set from our favorite test sample, NA12878:

##fileformat=VCFv4.0
##FILTER=<ID=LowQual,Description="QUAL < 50.0">
##FORMAT=<ID=AD,Number=.,Type=Integer,Description="Allelic depths for the ref and alt alleles in the order listed">
##FORMAT=<ID=DP,Number=1,Type=Integer,Description="Read Depth (only filtered reads used for calling)">
##FORMAT=<ID=GQ,Number=1,Type=Float,Description="Genotype Quality">
##FORMAT=<ID=GT,Number=1,Type=String,Description="Genotype">
##FORMAT=<ID=PL,Number=3,Type=Float,Description="Normalized, Phred-scaled likelihoods for AA,AB,BB genotypes where A=ref and B=alt; not applicable if site is not biallelic">
##INFO=<ID=AC,Number=.,Type=Integer,Description="Allele count in genotypes, for each ALT allele, in the same order as listed">
##INFO=<ID=AF,Number=.,Type=Float,Description="Allele Frequency, for each ALT allele, in the same order as listed">
##INFO=<ID=AN,Number=1,Type=Integer,Description="Total number of alleles in called genotypes">
##INFO=<ID=DB,Number=0,Type=Flag,Description="dbSNP Membership">
##INFO=<ID=DP,Number=1,Type=Integer,Description="Total Depth">
##INFO=<ID=DS,Number=0,Type=Flag,Description="Were any of the samples downsampled?">
##INFO=<ID=Dels,Number=1,Type=Float,Description="Fraction of Reads Containing Spanning Deletions">
##INFO=<ID=HRun,Number=1,Type=Integer,Description="Largest Contiguous Homopolymer Run of Variant Allele In Either Direction">
##INFO=<ID=HaplotypeScore,Number=1,Type=Float,Description="Consistency of the site with two (and only two) segregating haplotypes">
##INFO=<ID=MQ,Number=1,Type=Float,Description="RMS Mapping Quality">
##INFO=<ID=MQ0,Number=1,Type=Integer,Description="Total Mapping Quality Zero Reads">
##INFO=<ID=QD,Number=1,Type=Float,Description="Variant Confidence/Quality by Depth">
##INFO=<ID=SB,Number=1,Type=Float,Description="Strand Bias">
##INFO=<ID=VQSLOD,Number=1,Type=Float,Description="log10-scaled probability of variant being true under the trained gaussian mixture model">
##UnifiedGenotyperV2="analysis_type=UnifiedGenotyperV2 input_file=[TEXT CLIPPED FOR CLARITY]"
#CHROM  POS ID      REF ALT QUAL    FILTER  INFO    FORMAT  NA12878
chr1    873762  .       T   G   5231.78 PASS    AC=1;AF=0.50;AN=2;DP=315;Dels=0.00;HRun=2;HaplotypeScore=15.11;MQ=91.05;MQ0=15;QD=16.61;SB=-1533.02;VQSLOD=-1.5473 GT:AD:DP:GQ:PL   0/1:173,141:282:99:255,0,255
chr1    877664  rs3828047   A   G   3931.66 PASS    AC=2;AF=1.00;AN=2;DB;DP=105;Dels=0.00;HRun=1;HaplotypeScore=1.59;MQ=92.52;MQ0=4;QD=37.44;SB=-1152.13;VQSLOD= 0.1185 GT:AD:DP:GQ:PL  1/1:0,105:94:99:255,255,0
chr1    899282  rs28548431  C   T   71.77   PASS    AC=1;AF=0.50;AN=2;DB;DP=4;Dels=0.00;HRun=0;HaplotypeScore=0.00;MQ=99.00;MQ0=0;QD=17.94;SB=-46.55;VQSLOD=-1.9148 GT:AD:DP:GQ:PL  0/1:1,3:4:25.92:103,0,26
chr1    974165  rs9442391   T   C   29.84   LowQual AC=1;AF=0.50;AN=2;DB;DP=18;Dels=0.00;HRun=1;HaplotypeScore=0.16;MQ=95.26;MQ0=0;QD=1.66;SB=-0.98 GT:AD:DP:GQ:PL  0/1:14,4:14:60.91:61,0,255

It seems a bit complex, but the structure of the file is actually quite simple:

[HEADER LINES]
#CHROM  POS ID      REF ALT QUAL    FILTER  INFO          FORMAT          NA12878
chr1    873762  .       T   G   5231.78 PASS    [ANNOTATIONS] GT:AD:DP:GQ:PL  0/1:173,141:282:99:255,0,255
chr1    877664  rs3828047   A   G   3931.66 PASS    [ANNOTATIONS] GT:AD:DP:GQ:PL  1/1:0,105:94:99:255,255,0
chr1    899282  rs28548431  C   T   71.77   PASS    [ANNOTATIONS] GT:AD:DP:GQ:PL  0/1:1,3:4:25.92:103,0,26
chr1    974165  rs9442391   T   C   29.84   LowQual [ANNOTATIONS] GT:AD:DP:GQ:PL  0/1:14,4:14:60.91:61,0,255

After the header lines and the field names, each line represents a single variant, with various properties of that variant represented in the columns. Note that here everything is a SNP, but some could be indels or CNVs.

3. How variation is represented

The first 6 columns of the VCF, which represent the observed variation, are easy to understand because they have a single, well-defined meaning.

  • CHROM and POS : The CHROM and POS gives the contig on which the variant occurs. For indels this is actually the base preceding the event, due to how indels are represented in a VCF.

  • ID: The dbSNP rs identifier of the SNP, based on the contig and position of the call and whether a record exists at this site in dbSNP.

  • REF and ALT: The reference base and alternative base that vary in the samples, or in the population in general. Note that REF and ALT are always given on the forward strand. For indels the REF and ALT bases always include at least one base each (the base before the event).

  • QUAL: The Phred scaled probability that a REF/ALT polymorphism exists at this site given sequencing data. Because the Phred scale is -10 * log(1-p), a value of 10 indicates a 1 in 10 chance of error, while a 100 indicates a 1 in 10^10 chance. These values can grow very large when a large amount of NGS data is used for variant calling.

  • FILTER: In a perfect world, the QUAL field would be based on a complete model for all error modes present in the data used to call. Unfortunately, we are still far from this ideal, and we have to use orthogonal approaches to determine which called sites, independent of QUAL, are machine errors and which are real SNPs. Whatever approach is used to filter the SNPs, the VCFs produced by the GATK carry both the PASSing filter records (the ones that are good have PASS in their FILTER field) as well as those that fail (the filter field is anything but PASS or a dot). If the FILTER field is a ".", then no filtering has been applied to the records, meaning that all of the records will be used for analysis but without explicitly saying that any PASS. You should avoid such a situation by always filtering raw variant calls before analysis.

For more details about these fields, please see this page.

In the excerpt shown above, here is how we interpret the line corresponding to each variant:

  • chr1:873762 is a novel T/G polymorphism, found with very high confidence (QUAL = 5231.78)
  • chr1:877664 is a known A/G SNP (named rs3828047), found with very high confidence (QUAL = 3931.66)
  • chr1:899282 is a known C/T SNP (named rs28548431), but has a relative low confidence (QUAL = 71.77)
  • chr1:974165 is a known T/C SNP but we have so little evidence for this variant in our data that although we write out a record for it (for book keeping, really) our statistical evidence is so low that we filter the record out as a bad site, as indicated by the "LowQual" annotation.

4. How genotypes are represented

The genotype fields of the VCF look more complicated but they're actually not that hard to interpret once you understand that they're just sets of tags and values. Let's take a look at three of the records shown earlier, simplified to just show the key genotype annotations:

chr1    873762  .       T   G   [CLIPPED] GT:AD:DP:GQ:PL    0/1:173,141:282:99:255,0,255
chr1    877664  rs3828047   A   G   [CLIPPED] GT:AD:DP:GQ:PL    1/1:0,105:94:99:255,255,0
chr1    899282  rs28548431  C   T   [CLIPPED] GT:AD:DP:GQ:PL    0/1:1,3:4:25.92:103,0,26

Looking at that last column, here is what the tags mean:

  • GT : The genotype of this sample. For a diploid organism, the GT field indicates the two alleles carried by the sample, encoded by a 0 for the REF allele, 1 for the first ALT allele, 2 for the second ALT allele, etc. When there's a single ALT allele (by far the more common case), GT will be either:

    • 0/0 - the sample is homozygous reference
    • 0/1 - the sample is heterozygous, carrying 1 copy of each of the REF and ALT alleles
    • 1/1 - the sample is homozygous alternate In the three examples above, NA12878 is observed with the allele combinations T/G, G/G, and C/T respectively.
  • GQ: The Genotype Quality, or Phred-scaled confidence that the true genotype is the one provided in GT. In the diploid case, if GT is 0/1, then GQ is really L(0/1) / (L(0/0) + L(0/1) + L(1/1)), where L is the likelihood that the sample is 0/0, 0/1/, or 1/1 under the model built for the NGS dataset. The GQ is simply the second most likely PL - the most likely PL. Because the most likely PL is always 0, GQ = second highest PL - 0. If the second most likely PL is greater than 99, we still assign a GQ of 99, so the highest value of GQ is 99.

  • AD and DP: These are complementary fields that represent two important ways of thinking about the depth of the data for this sample at this site. See the Technical Documentation for details on AD (DepthPerAlleleBySample) and DP (Coverage).

  • PL: This field provides the likelihoods of the given genotypes (here, 0/0, 0/1, and 1/1). These are normalized, Phred-scaled likelihoods for each of the 0/0, 0/1, and 1/1, without priors. To be concrete, for the heterozygous case, this is L(data given that the true genotype is 0/1). The most likely genotype (given in the GT field) is scaled so that it's P = 1.0 (0 when Phred-scaled), and the other likelihoods reflect their Phred-scaled likelihoods relative to this most likely genotype.

With that out of the way, let's interpret the genotypes for NA12878 at chr1:899282.

chr1    899282  rs28548431  C   T   [CLIPPED] GT:AD:DP:GQ:PL    0/1:1,3:4:25.92:103,0,26

At this site, the called genotype is GT = 0/1, which is C/T. The confidence indicated by GQ = 25.92 isn't so good, largely because there were only a total of 4 reads at this site (DP =4), 1 of which was REF (=had the reference base) and 3 of which were ALT (=had the alternate base) (indicated by AD=1,3). The lack of certainty is evident in the PL field, where PL(0/1) = 0 (the normalized value that corresponds to a likelihood of 1.0). There's a chance that the subject is "hom-var" (=homozygous with the variant allele) since PL(1/1) = 26, which corresponds to 10^(-2.6), or 0.0025, but either way, it's clear that the subject is definitely not "hom-ref" (=homozygous with the reference allele) since PL(0/0) = 103, which corresponds to 10^(-10.3), a very small number.

5. Understanding annotations

Finally, variants in a VCF can be annotated with a variety of additional tags, either by the built-in tools or with others that you add yourself. The way they're formatted is similar to what we saw in the Genotype fields, except instead of being in two separate fields (tags and values, respectively) the annotation tags and values are grouped together, so tag-value pairs are written one after another.

chr1    873762  [CLIPPED] AC=1;AF=0.50;AN=2;DP=315;Dels=0.00;HRun=2;HaplotypeScore=15.11;MQ=91.05;MQ0=15;QD=16.61;SB=-1533.02;VQSLOD=-1.5473
chr1    877664  [CLIPPED] AC=2;AF=1.00;AN=2;DB;DP=105;Dels=0.00;HRun=1;HaplotypeScore=1.59;MQ=92.52;MQ0=4;QD=37.44;SB=-1152.13;VQSLOD= 0.1185
chr1    899282  [CLIPPED] AC=1;AF=0.50;AN=2;DB;DP=4;Dels=0.00;HRun=0;HaplotypeScore=0.00;MQ=99.00;MQ0=0;QD=17.94;SB=-46.55;VQSLOD=-1.9148

Here are some commonly used built-in annotations and what they mean:

Annotation tag in VCF Meaning
AC,AF,AN See the Technical Documentation for Chromosome Counts.
DB If present, then the variant is in dbSNP.
DP See the Technical Documentation for Coverage.
DS Were any of the samples downsampled because of too much coverage?
Dels See the Technical Documentation for SpanningDeletions.
MQ and MQ0 See the Technical Documentation for RMS Mapping Quality and Mapping Quality Zero.
BaseQualityRankSumTest See the Technical Documentation for Base Quality Rank Sum Test.
MappingQualityRankSumTest See the Technical Documentation for Mapping Quality Rank Sum Test.
ReadPosRankSumTest See the Technical Documentation for Read Position Rank Sum Test.
HRun See the Technical Documentation for Homopolymer Run.
HaplotypeScore See the Technical Documentation for Haplotype Score.
QD See the Technical Documentation for Qual By Depth.
VQSLOD Only present when using Variant quality score recalibration. Log odds ratio of being a true variant versus being false under the trained gaussian mixture model.
FS See the Technical Documentation for Fisher Strand
SB How much evidence is there for Strand Bias (the variation being seen on only the forward or only the reverse strand) in the reads? Higher SB values denote more bias (and therefore are more likely to indicate false positive calls).
Post edited by Sheila on

Geraldine Van der Auwera, PhD

Comments

  • Geraldine_VdAuweraGeraldine_VdAuwera Posts: 6,462Administrator, GATK Developer admin
  • HeidihuangHeidihuang ChinaPosts: 18Member

    Hello, Is there any information about non-reference counts? In my vcf file, the genotype field has 9 subfields including GT:AB AD:DOS:DP:GQ:NALT:NALTT:PL. I am confused by NALT and NALTT. Is NALT will equal to the total numbers of alt alleles in AD field? Or are there any other ideas to get the non-reference counts for every site of every sample? Thanks a lot!

    The description of FORMAT field in my vcf file is as follows.

    GT:AB:AD:DOS:DP:GQ:NALT:NALTT:PL

    FORMAT=<ID=AB,Number=1,Type=Float,Description="Allele balance for each het genotype">

    FORMAT=<ID=AD,Number=.,Type=Integer,Description="Allelic depths for the ref and alt alleles in the order listed">

    FORMAT=<ID=DOS,Number=1,Type=Float,Description="Dosage from likelihoods">

    FORMAT=<ID=DP,Number=1,Type=Integer,Description="Approximate read depth (reads with MQ=255 or with bad mates are filtered)">

    FORMAT=<ID=GQ,Number=1,Type=Integer,Description="Genotype Quality">

    FORMAT=<ID=GT,Number=1,Type=String,Description="Genotype">

    FORMAT=<ID=NALT,Number=1,Type=Integer,Description="Number of nonreference alleles for this individual">

    FORMAT=<ID=NALTT,Number=1,Type=Integer,Description="Number of nonreference alleles for this individual; thresholded">

    FORMAT=<ID=PL,Number=G,Type=Integer,Description="Normalized, Phred-scaled likelihoods for genotypes as defined in the VCF specification">

  • HeidihuangHeidihuang ChinaPosts: 18Member

    @Geraldine_VdAuwera‌ Sorry for asking silly questions. In FORMAT field, AD corresponds to non-filtered counts, and DP is filtered. I was wondering which one is corresponding non-reference counts for DP in FORMAT field? If I want one corresponding non-reference counts and depth, no matter it is filtered or not, how can I extract them? Thanks a lot!

  • Geraldine_VdAuweraGeraldine_VdAuwera Posts: 6,462Administrator, GATK Developer admin

    @Heidihuang‌ If you want to get the count of all reads that do not have the reference allele, you should take the sum of the AD elements minus the first AD element (which is the reference depth).

    Geraldine Van der Auwera, PhD

  • HasaniHasani GermanyPosts: 14Member
    edited August 6

    Over 70% of the links in this page are broken..could you please re-point to the right page?

    Broken links are:

    • AD (DepthPerAlleleBySample) and DP (Coverage).

    • AC,AF,AN -> Chromosome Counts.

    • DP -> Coverage.

    • Dels -> SpanningDeletions.

    • MQ and MQ0 -> RMS Mapping Quality and Mapping Quality Zero.

    • BaseQualityRankSumTest -> Base Quality Rank Sum Test.

    • MappingQualityRankSumTest -> Mapping Quality Rank Sum Test.

    • ReadPosRankSumTest -> Read Position Rank Sum Test.

    • HRun -> Homopolymer Run.

    • HaplotypeScore -> Haplotype Score.

    • QD -> Qual By Depth.

    • FS -> Fisher Strand

    Thank you in advance!

    Post edited by Hasani on
  • Geraldine_VdAuweraGeraldine_VdAuwera Posts: 6,462Administrator, GATK Developer admin

    Sure, will do. In the meantime you can find those doc pages by going to Guide > Tool Documentation > Annotations

    Geraldine Van der Auwera, PhD

  • JackJack Posts: 36Member

    Hi Geraldine! Recently I used GATK HaplotypeCaller to call SNPs, but I didn't quite understand the output. I used HaplotypeCaller to generate g.vcf files and then genotype these g.vcf files together. Below is a few examples:

    The first is : chr1 231884 rs316190603 C T 513.90 PASS AC=2;AF=1.00;AN=2;DB;DP=37;FS=0.000;MLEAC=2;MLEAF=1.00;MQ=60.00;MQ0=0;QD=28.62 GT:AD:DP:GQ:PL 1/1:0,12:12:36:540,36,0 ./.:.:5 ./.:.:20 In this example, I wonder why GATK gives ./.:.:5 and ./.:.:20, assigning no genotypes and allele depth (AD) for these two samples.I examined the read mapping, and found that both the second and the third sample have reads mapped at this site (see the attatchment).

    The second example is : chr3 98144609 . A G 318.39 PASS AC=4;AF=0.667;AN=6;DP=0;FS=0.000;MLEAC=4;MLEAF=0.667;MQ=0.00;MQ0=0 GT:GQ:PL 1/1:3:133,3,0 0/1:23:38,0,23 0/1:3:175,0,3 In this example, why the filed "DP" is 0, and GATK still assign genotypes for the samples?

    Thanks!

    read mapping.png
    1366 x 633 - 16K
  • Geraldine_VdAuweraGeraldine_VdAuwera Posts: 6,462Administrator, GATK Developer admin

    Hi @Jack,

    For your first example, can you post the lines from the individual sample GVCFs? you should use the -bamout argument to see what the region looks like after reassembly. It's possible that the reassembly process has moved the reads somewhere else and that the site is no longer covered.

    For your second example, the DP annotation is the filtered depth, so it's possible that there are reads there, but they fail the HC's quality filters. When that happens, the HC will still try to genotype the samples, but you can see from the PL values that there is no real confidence about which genotype is correct.

    Geraldine Van der Auwera, PhD

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