UBC Faculty Research and Publications

Correcting for 16S rRNA gene copy numbers in microbiome surveys remains an unsolved problem Louca, Stilianos; Doebeli, Michael; Parfrey, Laura W


The 16S ribosomal RNA gene is the most widely used marker gene in microbial ecology. Counts of 16S sequence variants, often in PCR amplicons, are used to estimate proportions of bacterial and archaeal taxa in microbial communities. Because different organisms contain different 16S gene copy numbers (GCNs), sequence variant counts are biased towards clades with greater GCNs. Several tools have recently been developed for predicting GCNs using phylogenetic methods and based on sequenced genomes, in order to correct for these biases. However, the accuracy of those predictions has not been independently assessed. Here, we systematically evaluate the predictability of 16S GCNs across bacterial and archaeal clades, based on ∼ 6,800 public sequenced genomes and using several phylogenetic methods. Further, we assess the accuracy of GCNs predicted by three recently published tools (PICRUSt, CopyRighter, and PAPRICA) over a wide range of taxa and for 635 microbial communities from varied environments. We find that regardless of the phylogenetic method tested, 16S GCNs could only be accurately predicted for a limited fraction of taxa, namely taxa with closely to moderately related representatives (≲15% divergence in the 16S rRNA gene). Consistent with this observation, we find that all considered tools exhibit low predictive accuracy when evaluated against completely sequenced genomes, in some cases explaining less than 10% of the variance. Substantial disagreement was also observed between tools (R2

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