Wu, J.; Ma, Y.-B.; Congdon, C.; Brett, B.; Chen, S.; Xu, Y.; Ouyang, Q. & Mao, Y. Massively parallel unsupervised single-particle cryo-EM data clustering via statistical manifold learning. PloS one, 2017, 12, e0182130
Structural heterogeneity in single-particle cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) data represents a major challenge for high-resolution structure determination. Unsupervised classification may serve as the first step in the assessment of structural heterogeneity. However, traditional algorithms for unsupervised classification, such as K-means clustering and maximum likelihood optimization, may classify images into wrong classes with decreasing signal-to-noise-ratio (SNR) in the image data, yet demand increased computational costs. Overcoming these limitations requires further development of clustering algorithms for high-performance cryo-EM data processing. Here we introduce an unsupervised single-particle clustering algorithm derived from a statistical manifold learning framework called generative topographic mapping (GTM). We show that unsupervised GTM clustering improves classification accuracy by about 40% in the absence of input references for data with lower SNRs. Applications to several experimental datasets suggest that our algorithm can detect subtle structural differences among classes via a hierarchical clustering strategy. After code optimization over a high-performance computing (HPC) environment, our software implementation was able to generate thousands of reference-free class averages within hours in a massively parallel fashion, which allows a significant improvement on ab initio 3D reconstruction and assists in the computational purification of homogeneous datasets for high-resolution visualization.