Friday, June 23, 2017

Weekend reads

New reading material for the weekend or for those of you that are blessed with some better weather perhaps for Monday morning back at work. 

Bird remains that are difficult to identify taxonomically using morphological methods, are common in the palaeontological record. Other types of challenging avian material include artefacts and food items from endangered taxa, as well as remains from aircraft strikes. We here present a DNA-based method that enables taxonomic identification of bird remains, even from material where the DNA is heavily degraded. The method is based on the amplification and sequencing of two short variable parts of the 16S region in the mitochondrial genome. To demonstrate the applicability of this approach, we evaluated the method on a set of Holocene and Late Pleistocene postcranial bird bones from several palaeontological and archaeological sites in Europe with good success.

Community-level data, the type generated by an increasing number of metabarcoding studies, is often graphed as stacked bar charts or pie graphs that use color to represent taxa. These graph types do not convey the hierarchical structure of taxonomic classifications and are limited by the use of color for categories. As an alternative, we developed metacoder, an R package for easily parsing, manipulating, and graphing publication-ready plots of hierarchical data. Metacoder includes a dynamic and flexible function that can parse most text-based formats that contain taxonomic classifications, taxon names, taxon identifiers, or sequence identifiers. Metacoder can then subset, sample, and order this parsed data using a set of intuitive functions that take into account the hierarchical nature of the data. Finally, an extremely flexible plotting function enables quantitative representation of up to 4 arbitrary statistics simultaneously in a tree format by mapping statistics to the color and size of tree nodes and edges. Metacoder also allows exploration of barcode primer bias by integrating functions to run digital PCR. Although it has been designed for data from metabarcoding research, metacoder can easily be applied to any data that has a hierarchical component such as gene ontology or geographic location data. Our package complements currently available tools for community analysis and is provided open source with an extensive online user manual.

Studying taxonomic and ecological diversity of phytoplankton assemblages is often difficult because morphological analysis cannot provide a complete description of their composition. Therefore, more robust and feasible approaches have to be chosen to elucidate the interactions between environmental and human pressures and phytoplankton assemblages. The Ocean Sampling Day (OSD) allowed collecting seawater samples from a wide range of oceanic regions including the Mediterranean Sea. In this study, a total of 754,167 V4-18S ribosomal DNA (rDNA) metabarcodes derived from 20 plankton samples collected at 19 sampling sites across the coastal areas of the Mediterranean Sea were analyzed to explore the relationships between phytoplankton assemblages' composition, sub-regional environmental features and human pressures. We reduced the whole set of autotroph plankton (1398 OTUs) to a smaller number of ecologically relevant entities (205 taxa) and used the latter for analysing the structure of phytoplankton assemblages. Chaetoceros was the only genus occurring in all the samples, while the number of taxa was maximum in the W Mediterranean. Based on the assigned OTUs, the structure of E Mediterranean phytoplankton was the most homogeneous. Further, phytoplankton assemblages from the three Mediterranean sub-regions (Western, Adriatic and Eastern) were significantly different (R=0.25, p=0.0136) based on Jaccard similarity. We also observed that phytoplankton diversity and human impact on marine ecosystems were not significantly related to each other based on Mantel's test.

Human impact on marine benthic communities has traditionally been assessed using visible morphological traits and has focused on the macrobenthos, whereas the ecologically important organisms of the meio- and microbenthos have received less attention. DNA metabarcoding offers an alternative to this approach and enables a larger fraction of the biodiversity in marine sediments to be monitored in a cost-efficient manner. Although this methodology remains poorly standardised and challenged by biases inherent to rRNA copy number variation, DNA extraction, PCR, and limitations related to taxonomic identification, it has been shown to be semi-quantitative and useful for comparing taxon abundances between samples. Here, we evaluate the effect of replicating genomic DNA extraction in order to counteract small scale spatial heterogeneity and improve diversity and community structure estimates in metabarcoding-based monitoring. For this purpose, we used ten technical replicates from three different marine sediment samples. The effect of sequence depth was also assessed, and in silico pooling of DNA extraction replicates carried out in order to maintain the number of reads constant. Our analyses demonstrated that both sequencing depth and DNA extraction replicates could improve diversity estimates as well as the ability to separate samples with different characteristics. We could not identify a "sufficient" replicate number or sequence depth, where further improvements had a less significant effect. Based on these results, we consider replication an attractive alternative to directly increasing the amount of sample used for DNA extraction and strongly recommend it for future metabarcoding studies and routine assessments of sediment biodiversity.

Terrestrial animals must have frequent contact with water to survive, implying that environmental DNA (eDNA) originating from those animals should be detectable from places containing water in terrestrial ecosystems. Aiming to detect the presence of terrestrial mammals using forest water samples, we applied a set of universal PCR primers (MiMammal, a modified version of fish universal primers) for metabarcoding mammalian eDNA. The versatility of MiMammal primers was tested in silico and by amplifying DNAs extracted from tissues. The results suggested that MiMammal primers are capable of amplifying and distinguishing a diverse group of mammalian species. In addition, analyses of water samples from zoo cages of mammals with known species composition suggested that MiMammal primers could successfully detect mammalian species from water samples in the field. Then, we performed an experiment to detect mammals from natural ecosystems by collecting five 500-ml water samples from ponds in two cool-temperate forests in Hokkaido, northern Japan. MiMammal amplicon libraries were constructed using eDNA extracted from water samples, and sequences generated by Illumina MiSeq were subjected to data processing and taxonomic assignment. We thereby detected multiple species of mammals common to the sampling areas, including deer (Cervus nippon), mouse (Mus musculus), vole (Myodes rufocanus), raccoon (Procyon lotor), rat (Rattus norvegicus) and shrew (Sorex unguiculatus). Many previous applications of the eDNA metabarcoding approach have been limited to aquatic/semiaquatic systems, but the results presented here show that the approach is also promising even for forest mammal biodiversity surveys.

Benthic communities are key components of aquatic ecosystems' biomonitoring. However, morphology-based species identifications remain a low-throughput, and sometimes ambiguous, approach. Despite metabarcoding methodologies have been applied for above-species taxa inventories in marine meiofaunal communities, a comprehensive approach providing species-level identifications for estuarine macrobenthic communities is still lacking. Here we report a combination of experimental and field studies that demonstrate the aptitude of cytochrome oxidase I (COI) metabarcoding to provide robust species-level identifications within a framework of high-throughput monitoring of estuarine macrobenthic communities. To investigate the ability to recover DNA barcodes from all species present in a bulk community DNA extract, we assembled experimentally 3 phylogenetically diverse communities, and used in each 4 different primer pairs to generate an equal number of different PCR products of the COI barcode region. Between 78 and 83% of the species in the tested communities were recovered through multi-primer high throughput sequencing (HTS). Two primer pairs were sufficient to attain these recovery rates. Subsequently, we compared morphology and metabarcoding-based approaches to determine the species composition of macrobenthos from four distinct sites of the Sado estuary, Portugal. Our results indicate that the species richness would be considerably underestimated if only morphological methods were used. Although further refinement is required for improving the efficiency and output of this approach, here we show the great aptitude of COI-multi-primer metabarcoding to provide high quality and auditable species identifications in macrobenthos monitoring.

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