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There are three main reasons why you might want to combine variants from different files into one, and the tool to use depends on what you are trying to achieve.
The most common case is when you have been parallelizing your variant calling analyses, e.g. running HaplotypeCaller per-chromosome, producing separate VCF files (or gVCF files) per-chromosome. For that case, you can use a tool called CatVariants to concatenate the files. There are a few important requirements (e.g. the files should contain all the same samples, and distinct intervals) which you can read about on the tool's documentation page.
The second case is when you have been using HaplotypeCaller in
-ERC GVCF or
-ERC BP_RESOLUTION to call variants on a large cohort, producing many gVCF files. We recommend combining the output gVCF in batches of e.g. 200 before putting them through joint genotyping with GenotypeGVCFs (for performance reasons), which you can do using CombineGVCFs, which is specific for handling gVCF files.
The third case is when you want to combine variant calls that were produced from the same samples but using different methods, for comparison. For example, if you're evaluating variant calls produced by different variant callers, different workflows, or the same but using different parameters. This produces separate callsets for the same samples, which are then easier to compare if you combine them into a single file. For that purpose, you can use CombineVariants, which is capable of merging VCF records intelligently, treating the same samples as separate or not as desired, combining annotations as appropriate. This is the case that requires the most preparation and forethought because there are many options that may be used to adapt the behavior of the tool.
There is also one reason you might want to combine variants from different files into one, that we do not recommend following. That is, if you have produced variant calls from various samples separately, and want to combine them for analysis. This is how people used to do variant analysis on large numbers of samples, but we don't recommend proceeding this way because that workflow suffers from serious methodological flaws. Instead, you should follow our recommendations as laid out in the Best Practices documentation.
Here we provide some more information and a worked out example to illustrate the third case because it is less straightforward than the other two.
A key point to understand is that CombineVariants will include a record at every site in all of your input VCF files, and annotate in which input callsets the record is present, pass, or filtered in in the set attribute in the
INFO field (see below). In effect, CombineVariants always produces a union of the input VCFs. Any part of the Venn of the N merged VCFs can then be extracted specifically using JEXL expressions on the set attribute using SelectVariants. If you want to extract just the records in common between two VCFs, you would first CombineVariants the two files into a single VCF, and then run SelectVariants to extract the common records with
-select 'set == "Intersection"', as worked out in the detailed example below.
-filteredRecordsMergeType argument determines how CombineVariants handles sites where a record is present in multiple VCFs, but it is filtered in some and unfiltered in others, as described in the tool documentation page linked above.
The set property of the
INFO field indicates which call set the variant was found in. It can take on a variety of values indicating the exact nature of the overlap between the call sets. Note that the values are generalized for multi-way combinations, but here we describe only the values for 2 call sets being combined.
set=Intersection : occurred in both call sets, not filtered out
set=NAME : occurred in the call set
set=NAME1-filteredInNAME : occurred in both call sets, but was not filtered in
NAME1 but was filtered in
set=filteredInAll : occurred in both call sets, but was filtered out of both
For three or more call sets combinations, you can see records like
NAME1-NAME2 indicating a variant occurred in both
NAME2 but not all sets.
You specify the
NAME of a callset is by using the following syntax in your command line:
You can add the
-minimalVCF argument to CombineVariants if you want to eliminate unnecessary information from the
INFO field and genotypes. In that case, the only fields emitted will be
GT:GQ for genotypes and the
An even more extreme output format is
-sites_only (a general engine capability listed in the CommandLineGATK documentation) where the genotypes for all samples are completely stripped away from the output format. Enabling this option results in a significant performance speedup as well.
Sometimes you may want to combine several data sets but you only keep sites that are present in at least 2 of them. To do so, simply add the
--minimumN) command, followed by an integer if you want to only output records present in at least N input files. In our example, you would add
-minN 2 to the command line.
In the following example, we use CombineVariants and SelectVariants to obtain only the sites in common between the OMNI 2.5M and HapMap3 sites in the GSA bundle.
# combine the data java -Xmx2g -jar dist/GenomeAnalysisTK.jar -T CombineVariants -R bundle/b37/human_g1k_v37.fasta -L 1:1-1,000,000 -V:omni bundle/b37/1000G_omni2.5.b37.sites.vcf -V:hm3 bundle/b37/hapmap_3.3.b37.sites.vcf -o union.vcf # select the intersection java -Xmx2g -jar dist/GenomeAnalysisTK.jar -T SelectVariants -R ~/Desktop/broadLocal/localData/human_g1k_v37.fasta -L 1:1-1,000,000 -V:variant union.vcf -select 'set == "Intersection";' -o intersect.vcf
This results in two vcf files, which look like:
# contents of union.vcf 1 990839 SNP1-980702 C T . PASS AC=150;AF=0.05384;AN=2786;CR=100.0;GentrainScore=0.7267;HW=0.0027632264;set=Intersection 1 990882 SNP1-980745 C T . PASS CR=99.79873;GentrainScore=0.7403;HW=0.005225421;set=omni 1 990984 SNP1-980847 G A . PASS CR=99.76005;GentrainScore=0.8406;HW=0.26163524;set=omni 1 992265 SNP1-982128 C T . PASS CR=100.0;GentrainScore=0.7412;HW=0.0025895447;set=omni 1 992819 SNP1-982682 G A . id50 CR=99.72961;GentrainScore=0.8505;HW=4.811053E-17;set=FilteredInAll 1 993987 SNP1-983850 T C . PASS CR=99.85935;GentrainScore=0.8336;HW=9.959717E-28;set=omni 1 994391 rs2488991 G T . PASS AC=1936;AF=0.69341;AN=2792;CR=99.89378;GentrainScore=0.7330;HW=1.1741E-41;set=filterInomni-hm3 1 996184 SNP1-986047 G A . PASS CR=99.932205;GentrainScore=0.8216;HW=3.8830226E-6;set=omni 1 998395 rs7526076 A G . PASS AC=2234;AF=0.80187;AN=2786;CR=100.0;GentrainScore=0.8758;HW=0.67373306;set=Intersection 1 999649 SNP1-989512 G A . PASS CR=99.93262;GentrainScore=0.7965;HW=4.9767335E-4;set=omni # contents of intersect.vcf 1 950243 SNP1-940106 A C . PASS AC=826;AF=0.29993;AN=2754;CR=97.341675;GentrainScore=0.7311;HW=0.15148845;set=Intersection 1 957640 rs6657048 C T . PASS AC=127;AF=0.04552;AN=2790;CR=99.86667;GentrainScore=0.6806;HW=2.286109E-4;set=Intersection 1 959842 rs2710888 C T . PASS AC=654;AF=0.23559;AN=2776;CR=99.849;GentrainScore=0.8072;HW=0.17526293;set=Intersection 1 977780 rs2710875 C T . PASS AC=1989;AF=0.71341;AN=2788;CR=99.89077;GentrainScore=0.7875;HW=2.9912625E-32;set=Intersection 1 985900 SNP1-975763 C T . PASS AC=182;AF=0.06528;AN=2788;CR=99.79926;GentrainScore=0.8374;HW=0.017794203;set=Intersection 1 987200 SNP1-977063 C T . PASS AC=1956;AF=0.70007;AN=2794;CR=99.45917;GentrainScore=0.7914;HW=1.413E-42;set=Intersection 1 987670 SNP1-977533 T G . PASS AC=2485;AF=0.89196;AN=2786;CR=99.51427;GentrainScore=0.7005;HW=0.24214932;set=Intersection 1 990417 rs2465136 T C . PASS AC=1113;AF=0.40007;AN=2782;CR=99.7599;GentrainScore=0.8750;HW=8.595538E-5;set=Intersection 1 990839 SNP1-980702 C T . PASS AC=150;AF=0.05384;AN=2786;CR=100.0;GentrainScore=0.7267;HW=0.0027632264;set=Intersection 1 998395 rs7526076 A G . PASS AC=2234;AF=0.80187;AN=2786;CR=100.0;GentrainScore=0.8758;HW=0.67373306;set=Intersection