An inter-laboratory study to investigate the impact of the bioinformatics component on microbiome analysis using mock communities

Denise M. O’Sullivan, Ronan M. Doyle, Sasithon Temisak, Nicholas Redshaw, Alexandra S. Whale, Grace Logan, Jiabin Huang, Nicole Fischer, Gregory C.A. Amos, Mark D. Preston, Julian R. Marchesi, Josef Wagner, Julian Parkhill, Yair Motro, Hubert Denise, Robert D. Finn, Kathryn A. Harris, Gemma L. Kay, Justin O’Grady, Emma Ransom-JonesHuihai Wu, Emma Laing, David J. Studholme, Ernest Diez Benavente, Jody Phelan, Taane G. Clark, Jacob Moran-Gilad, Jim F. Huggett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


Despite the advent of whole genome metagenomics, targeted approaches (such as 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing) continue to be valuable for determining the microbial composition of samples. Amplicon microbiome sequencing can be performed on clinical samples from a normally sterile site to determine the aetiology of an infection (usually single pathogen identification) or samples from more complex niches such as human mucosa or environmental samples where multiple microorganisms need to be identified. The methodologies are frequently applied to determine both presence of micro-organisms and their quantity or relative abundance. There are a number of technical steps required to perform microbial community profiling, many of which may have appreciable precision and bias that impacts final results. In order for these methods to be applied with the greatest accuracy, comparative studies across different laboratories are warranted. In this study we explored the impact of the bioinformatic approaches taken in different laboratories on microbiome assessment using 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing results. Data were generated from two mock microbial community samples which were amplified using primer sets spanning five different variable regions of 16S rRNA genes. The PCR-sequencing analysis included three technical repeats of the process to determine the repeatability of their methods. Thirteen laboratories participated in the study, and each analysed the same FASTQ files using their choice of pipeline. This study captured the methods used and the resulting sequence annotation and relative abundance output from bioinformatic analyses. Results were compared to digital PCR assessment of the absolute abundance of each target representing each organism in the mock microbial community samples and also to analyses of shotgun metagenome sequence data. This ring trial demonstrates that the choice of bioinformatic analysis pipeline alone can result in different estimations of the composition of the microbiome when using 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing data. The study observed differences in terms of both presence and abundance of organisms and provides a resource for ensuring reproducible pipeline development and application. The observed differences were especially prevalent when using custom databases and applying high stringency operational taxonomic unit (OTU) cut-off limits. In order to apply sequencing approaches with greater accuracy, the impact of different analytical steps needs to be clearly delineated and solutions devised to harmonise microbiome analysis results.

Original languageEnglish
Article number10590
Number of pages14
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Early online date19 May 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2021

Cite this