Microbiology, Metagenomics and Bioinformatics

Johan Bengtsson-Palme, University of Gothenburg | Wisconsin Institute for Discovery

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My name is Johan Bengtsson-Palme. I am currently a postdoctoral associate to Jo Handelsman’s lab at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While in the US, I am on a temporary leave from my position as assistant professor at the Sahlgrenska Academy at University of Gothenburg, Sweden. My research concerns microbiology and microbial ecology, primarily focusing on investigating antibiotic resistance and interactions in bacterial communities through metagenomics and bioinformatics. I also have an interest in molecular taxonomy and improving the quality of reference databases. I work closely with the groups of Joakim Larsson, Jo Handelsman, Erik Kristiansson and Henrik Nilsson. To contact me, feel free to send an e-mail to my firstname.lastname@microbiology.se

This weekend, F1000Research put online the non-peer-reviewed version of the paper resulting from a workshop arranged by the JRC in Italy last year (1). (I will refer to this as a preprint, but at F1000Research the line is quite blurry between preprint and published paper.) The paper describes various challenges arising from the process of designing a benchmark strategy for bioinformatics pipelines (2) in the identification of antimicrobial resistance genes in next generation sequencing data.

The paper discusses issues about the benchmarking datasets used, testing samples, evaluation criteria for the performance of different tools, and how the benchmarking dataset should be created and distributed. Specially, we address the following questions:

  • How should a benchmark strategy handle the current and expanding universe of NGS platforms?
  • What should be the quality profile (in terms of read length, error rate, etc.) of in silico reference materials?
  • Should different sets of reference materials be produced for each platform? In that case, how to ensure no bias is introduced in the process?
  • Should in silico reference material be composed of the output of real experiments, or simulated read sets? If a combination is used, what is the optimal ratio?
  • How is it possible to ensure that the simulated output has been simulated “correctly”?
  • For real experiment datasets, how to avoid the presence of sensitive information?
  • Regarding the quality metrics in the benchmark datasets (e.g. error rate, read quality), should these values be fixed for all datasets, or fall within specific ranges? How wide can/should these ranges be?
  • How should the benchmark manage the different mechanisms by which bacteria acquire resistance?
  • What is the set of resistance genes/mechanisms that need to be included in the benchmark? How should this set be agreed upon?
  • Should datasets representing different sample types (e.g. isolated clones, environmental samples) be included in the same benchmark?
  • Is a correct representation of different bacterial species (host genomes) important?
  • How can the “true” value of the samples, against which the pipelines will be evaluated, be guaranteed?
  • What is needed to demonstrate that the original sample has been correctly characterised, in case real experiments are used?
  • How should the target performance thresholds (e.g. specificity, sensitivity, accuracy) for the benchmark suite be set?
  • What is the impact of these performance thresholds on the required size of the sample set?
  • How can the benchmark stay relevant when new resistance mechanisms are regularly characterized?
  • How is the continued quality of the benchmark dataset ensured?
  • Who should generate the benchmark resource?
  • How can the benchmark resource be efficiently shared?

Of course, we have not answered all these questions, but I think we have come down to a decent description of the problems, which we see as an important foundation for solving these issues and implementing the benchmarking standard. Some of these issues were tackled in our review paper from last year on using metagenomics to study resistance genes in microbial communities (3). The paper also somewhat connects to the database curation paper we published in 2016 (4), although this time the strategies deal with the testing datasets rather than the actual databases. The paper is the first outcome of the workshop arranged by the JRC on “Next-generation sequencing technologies and antimicrobial resistance” held October 4-5 last year in Ispra, Italy. You can find the paper here (it’s open access).

References and notes

  1. Angers-Loustau A, Petrillo M, Bengtsson-Palme J, Berendonk T, Blais B, Chan KG, Coque TM, Hammer P, Heß S, Kagkli DM, Krumbiegel C, Lanza VF, Madec J-Y, Naas T, O’Grady J, Paracchini V, Rossen JWA, Ruppé E, Vamathevan J, Venturi V, Van den Eede G: The challenges of designing a benchmark strategy for bioinformatics pipelines in the identification of antimicrobial resistance determinants using next generation sequencing technologies. F1000Research, 7, 459 (2018). doi: 10.12688/f1000research.14509.1
  2. You may remember that I hate the term “pipeline” for bioinformatics protocols. I would have preferred if it was called workflows or similar, but the term “pipeline” has taken hold and I guess this is a battle where I have essentially lost. The bioinformatics workflows will be known as pipelines, for better and worse.
  3. Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJ, Kristiansson E: Using metagenomics to investigate human and environmental resistomes. Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, 72, 2690–2703 (2017). doi: 10.1093/jac/dkx199
  4. Bengtsson-Palme J, Boulund F, Edström R, Feizi A, Johnning A, Jonsson VA, Karlsson FH, Pal C, Pereira MB, Rehammar A, Sánchez J, Sanli K, Thorell K: Strategies to improve usability and preserve accuracy in biological sequence databases. Proteomics, 16, 18, 2454–2460 (2016). doi: 10.1002/pmic.201600034

I was recently invited to review a manuscript for a journal (1). After half the time to review deadline had passed, I received a mail stating that “In the interest of your time and the authors’ time, I am making a decision without the benefit of your input.” While I do understand that big journals receive many submissions and that the editor made this decision in the interest of time, I think that it should also be kept in mind that I had already spent approximately three hours scrutinizing the manuscript. Due to the decision of the editor, these are now three hours of work down the drain.

Furthermore, I was not informed what the decision was, and my access to the paper in the reviewing system was revoked. This means that I don’t even know if my opinions are concordant with the rest of the reviewers or not. Perhaps I had actually spotted crucial errors that the other reviewers had missed? Or maybe the paper was rejected, and my input was therefore no longer needed. I don’t know, because I was not informed.

These days, I receive many requests to perform manuscript reviews. A journal treating its reviewers like this causes me to lose all willingness to review for that journal again. To me, making a decision to dismiss reviewers without even asking them if they are about to submit comments, signals that a journal does not value its peer reviewers, and that I can spend my time better elsewhere. Similar to authors and editors, I do not want to waste my time on tasks that end up being of no use.

On the upside, this decision by the editor has freed some time for me to write up this rant, including the following advice: If you are an editor of a journal and you want to keep the reviewers (who, I remind you, work for free and are largely unrecognized for their work) happy, try to avoid pissing them off by dismissing their work. It does not hurt to ask them if they are about to submit their comments, or if they – given that a sufficient number of review reports have been submitted – would rather withdraw from the review process. This may add an extra day or two to the process, but I think that in the long run both authors, editors and reviewers would agree that the overall quality of the peer review process would benefit from those few extra days.

Footnotes

  1. I am not going to name the journal here, nor the identity of the editor, because that is not my point. I am not after singling out certain people here, but I want to address an overall behavior that annoys me. That said, the last three papers I have been a co-author on in this journal took five to seven weeks from the authors correction of the proofs until publication online. I find it stunning that with these delays, the journal dismisses the reviewers it has invited because they don’t produce peer reviews quicker than the deadline proposed by the journal. The real bottleneck in this process is not extensive review times, at least not in my experience.

I’ve been having a very intense start of the year with the move to the US and getting the family accustomed to Madison (which has taken time and energy, but gone really well). I just wanted to make you aware of that I have started posting at the Wisconsin Blog again and hope to be sharing research related stuff from my year in the US there. For more personal stuff, our family has set up a blog (in Swedish) at this address: https://palmeiamerikat.blogspot.com. You are very welcome to follow our adventure there!

MycoKeys earlier this week published a paper describing the results of a workshop in Aberdeen in April last year, where we refined annotations for fungal ITS sequences from the built environment (1). This was a follow-up on a workshop in May 2016 (2) and the results have been implemented in the UNITE database and shared with other online resources. The paper has also been highlighted at microBEnet. I have very little time to further comment on this at this very moment, but I believe, as I wrote last time, that distributed initiatives like this (and the ones I have been involved in in the past (3,4)) serve a very important purpose for establishing better annotation of sequence data (5). The full paper can be found here.

References

  1. Nilsson RH, Taylor AFS, Adams RI, Baschien C, Bengtsson-Palme J, Cangren P, Coleine C, Daniel H-M, Glassman SI, Hirooka Y, Irinyi L, Iršenaite R, Martin-Sánchez PM, Meyer W, Oh S-O, Sampaio JP, Seifert KA, Sklenár F, Stubbe D, Suh S-O, Summerbell R, Svantesson S, Unterseher M, Visagie CM, Weiss M, Woudenberg J, Wurzbacher C, Van den Wyngaert S, Yilmaz N, Yurkov A, Kõljalg U, Abarenkov K: Annotating public fungal ITS sequences from the built environment according to the MIxS-Built Environment standard – a report from an April 10-11, 2017 workshop (Aberdeen, UK). MycoKeys, 28, 65–82 (2018). doi: 10.3897/mycokeys.28.20887 [Paper link]
  2. Abarenkov K, Adams RI, Laszlo I, Agan A, Ambrioso E, Antonelli A, Bahram M, Bengtsson-Palme J, Bok G, Cangren P, Coimbra V, Coleine C, Gustafsson C, He J, Hofmann T, Kristiansson E, Larsson E, Larsson T, Liu Y, Martinsson S, Meyer W, Panova M, Pombubpa N, Ritter C, Ryberg M, Svantesson S, Scharn R, Svensson O, Töpel M, Untersehrer M, Visagie C, Wurzbacher C, Taylor AFS, Kõljalg U, Schriml L, Nilsson RH: Annotating public fungal ITS sequences from the built environment according to the MIxS-Built Environment standard – a report from a May 23-24, 2016 workshop (Gothenburg, Sweden). MycoKeys, 16, 1–15 (2016). doi: 10.3897/mycokeys.16.10000
  3. Kõljalg U, Nilsson RH, Abarenkov K, Tedersoo L, Taylor AFS, Bahram M, Bates ST, Bruns TT, Bengtsson-Palme J, Callaghan TM, Douglas B, Drenkhan T, Eberhardt U, Dueñas M, Grebenc T, Griffith GW, Hartmann M, Kirk PM, Kohout P, Larsson E, Lindahl BD, Lücking R, Martín MP, Matheny PB, Nguyen NH, Niskanen T, Oja J, Peay KG, Peintner U, Peterson M, Põldmaa K, Saag L, Saar I, Schüßler A, Senés C, Smith ME, Suija A, Taylor DE, Telleria MT, Weiß M, Larsson KH: Towards a unified paradigm for sequence-based identification of Fungi. Molecular Ecology, 22, 21, 5271–5277 (2013). doi: 10.1111/mec.12481
  4. Nilsson RH, Hyde KD, Pawlowska J, Ryberg M, Tedersoo L, Aas AB, Alias SA, Alves A, Anderson CL, Antonelli A, Arnold AE, Bahnmann B, Bahram M, Bengtsson-Palme J, Berlin A, Branco S, Chomnunti P, Dissanayake A, Drenkhan R, Friberg H, Frøslev TG, Halwachs B, Hartmann M, Henricot B, Jayawardena R, Jumpponen A, Kauserud H, Koskela S, Kulik T, Liimatainen K, Lindahl B, Lindner D, Liu J-K, Maharachchikumbura S, Manamgoda D, Martinsson S, Neves MA, Niskanen T, Nylinder S, Pereira OL, Pinho DB, Porter TM, Queloz V, Riit T, Sanchez-García M, de Sousa F, Stefaczyk E, Tadych M, Takamatsu S, Tian Q, Udayanga D, Unterseher M, Wang Z, Wikee S, Yan J, Larsson E, Larsson K-H, Kõljalg U, Abarenkov K: Improving ITS sequence data for identification of plant pathogenic fungi. Fungal Diversity, 67, 1, 11–19 (2014). doi: 10.1007/s13225-014-0291-8
  5. Bengtsson-Palme J, Boulund F, Edström R, Feizi A, Johnning A, Jonsson VA, Karlsson FH, Pal C, Pereira MB, Rehammar A, Sánchez J, Sanli K, Thorell K: Strategies to improve usability and preserve accuracy in biological sequence databases. Proteomics, Early view (2016). doi: 10.1002/pmic.201600034

Due to an extremely embarrassing for-loop error in the classifier of the most recent Metaxa2 beta (beta 8), which was released a few weeks ago, the classifier often would (on certain platforms and configurations) enter an endless loop and hang. I apologize for this mistake, which has been corrected in the new beta 9 released today, available from this download link. No other changes have been made since the previous version. Thanks for your patience (and thanks Kaisa Thorell for first bringing my attention the error!)

I am very happy to announce that a first public beta version of Metaxa2 version 2.2 has been released today! This new version brings two big and a number of small improvements to the Metaxa2 software (1). The first major addition is the introduction of the Metaxa2 Database Builder, which allows the user to create custom databases for virtually any genetic barcoding region. The second addition, which is related to the first, is that the classifier has been rewritten to have a more solid mathematical foundation. I have been promising that these updates were coming “soon” for one and a half years, but finally the end-product is good enough to see some real world testing. Bear in mind though that this is still a beta version that could contain obscure bugs. Here follows a list of new features (with further elaboration on a few below):

  • The Metaxa2 Database Builder
  • Support for additional barcoding genes, virtually any genetic region can now be used for taxonomic classification in Metaxa2
  • The Metaxa2 database repository, which can be accessed through the new metaxa2_install_database tool
  • Improved classification scoring model for better clarity and sensitivity
  • A bundled COI database for athropods, showing off the capabilities of the database builder
  • Support for compressed input files (gzip, zip, bzip, dsrc)
  • Support for auto-detection of database locations
  • Added output of probable taxonomic origin for sequences with reliability scores at each rank, made possible by the updated classifier
  • Added the -x option for running only the extraction without the classification step
  • Improved memory handling for very large rRNA datasets in the classifier (millions of sequences)
  • This update also fixes a bug in the metaxa2_rf tool that could cause bias in very skewed datasets with small numbers of taxa

The new version of Metaxa2 can be downloaded here, and for those interested I will spend the rest of this post outlining the Metaxa2 Database Builder. The information below is also available in a slightly extended version in the software manual.

The major enhancement in Metaxa2 version 2.2 is the ability to use custom databases for classification. This means that the user can now make their own database for their own barcoding region of choice, or download additional databases from the Metaxa2 Database Repository. The selection of other databases is made through the “-g” option already existing in Metaxa2. As part of these changes, we have also updated the classification scoring model for better stringency and sensitivity across multiple databases and different genes. The old scoring system can still be used by specifying the –scoring_model option to “old”.

There are two different main operating modes of the Metaxa2 Database Builder, as well as a hybrid mode combining the features of the two other modes. The divergent and conserved modes work in almost completely different ways and deal with two different types of barcoding regions. The divergent mode is designed to deal with barcoding regions that exhibit fairly large variation between taxa within the same taxonomic domain. Such regions include, e.g., the eukaryotic ITS region, or the trnL gene used for plant barcoding. In the other mode – the conserved mode – a highly conserved barcoding region is expected (at least within the different taxonomic domains). Genes that fall into this category would be, e.g., the 16S SSU rRNA, and the bacterial rpoB gene. This option would most likely also be suitable for barcoding within certain groups of e.g. plants, where similarity of the barcoding regions can be expected to be high. There is also a third mode – the hybrid mode – that incorporates features of both the other. The hybrid mode is more experimental in nature, but could be useful in situations where both the other modes perform poorer than desired.

In the divergent (default) mode, the database builder will start by clustering the input sequences at 20% identity using USEARCH (2). All clusters generated from this process are then individually aligned using MAFFT (3). Those alignments are split into two regions, which are used to build two hidden Markov models for each cluster of sequences. These models will be less precise, but more sensitive than those generated in the conserved mode. In the divergent mode, the database builder will attempt to extract full-length sequences from the input data, but this may be less successful than in the conserved mode.

In the conserved mode, on the other hand, the database builder will first extract the barcoding region from the input sequences using models built from a reference sequence provided (see above) and the Metaxa2 extractor (1). It will then align all the extracted sequences using MAFFT and determine the conservation of each position in the alignment. When the criteria for degree of conservation are met, all conserved regions are extracted individually and are then re-aligned separately using MAFFT. The re-aligned sequences are used to build hidden Markov models representing the conserved regions with HMMER (4). In this mode, the classification database will only consist of the extracted full-length sequences.

In the hybrid mode, finally, the database builder will cluster the input sequences at 20% identity using USEARCH, and then proceed with the conserved mode approach on each cluster separately .

The actual taxonomic classification in Metaxa2 is done using a sequence database. It was shown in the original Metaxa2 paper that replacing the built-in database with a generic non-processed one was detrimental to performance in terms of accuracy (1). In the database builder, we have tried to incorporate some of the aspects of the manual database curation we did for the built-in database that can be automated. By default, all these filtration steps are turned off, but enabling them might drastically increase the accuracy of classifications based on the database.

To assess the accuracy of the constructed database, the Metaxa2 Database Builder allows for testing the detection ability and classification accuracy of the constructed database. This is done by sub-dividing the database sequences into subsets and rebuilding the database using a smaller (by default 90%), randomly selected, set of the sequence data (5). The remaining sequences (10% by default) are then classified using Metaxa2 with the subset database. The number of detections, and the numbers of correctly or incorrectly classified entries are recorded and averaged over a number of iterations (10 by default). This allows for obtaining a picture of the lower end of the accuracy of the database. However, since the evaluation only uses a subset of all sequences included in the full database, the performance of the full database actually constructed is likely to be slightly better. The evaluation can be turned on using the “–evaluate T” option.

Metaxa2 2.2 also introduces the database repository, from which the user can download additional databases for Metaxa2. To download new databases from the repository, the metaxa2_install_database command is used. This is a simple piece of software but requires internet access to function.

References

  1. Bengtsson-Palme J, Hartmann M, Eriksson KM, Pal C, Thorell K, Larsson DGJ, Nilsson RH: Metaxa2: Improved Identification and Taxonomic Classification of Small and Large Subunit rRNA in Metagenomic Data. Molecular Ecology Resources (2015). doi: 10.1111/1755-0998.12399 [Paper link]
  2. Edgar RC: Search and clustering orders of magnitude faster than BLAST. Bioinformatics, 26, 2460–2461 (2010).
  3. Katoh K, Standley DM: MAFFT multiple sequence alignment software version 7: improvements in performance and usability. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 30, 772–780 (2013).
  4. Eddy SR: Accelerated profile HMM searches. PLoS Computational Biology, 7, e1002195 (2011).
  5. Richardson RT, Bengtsson-Palme J, Johnson RM: Evaluating and Optimizing the Performance of Software Commonly Used for the Taxonomic Classification of DNA Sequence Data. Molecular Ecology Resources, 17, 4, 760–769 (2017). doi: 10.1111/1755-0998.12628

Yesterday, BMC Microbiology published a paper which I have co-authored with Joakim Forsell and his colleagues in at Umeå University. The paper (1) investigates the prevalence and subtype composition of Blastocystis – a eukaryotic microbe commonly present in the human intestine – among the 35 Swedish university students that we investigated for antibiotic resistance before and after travel to the Indian peninsula or Central Africa using shotgun metagenomics, and published in 2015 (2). In this paper, we used the same metagenomic data, but to assess the impact of travel on Blastocystis carriage and to understand the associations between Blastocystis and the bacterial gut microbiota. We found that 46% of the students carried Blastocystis before travel and 43% after. The two most commonly identified Blastocystis subtypes were ST3 and ST4, accounting for 20 of the 31 samples positive for Blastocystis. Interestingly, we detected no mixed subtype carriage in any individual, and all the ten individuals with a typable subtype before and after travel maintained their initial subtype.

Furthermore, we found that the composition of the gut bacterial community was not significantly altered between Blastocystis-carriers and non-carriers. Curiously, Blastocystis was accompanied with higher abundances of the bacterial genera Sporolactobacillus and Candidatus Carsonella. As perviously observed (3), Blastocystis carriage was positively associated with higher bacterial genus richness, and negatively correlated to the Bacteroides-driven enterotype. We, however, took this observation further, and could show that these associations were both largely driven by ST4 – a subtype commonly described in Europe – while the globally prevalent ST3 did not show such significant relationships.

The persistence of Blastocystis subtypes before and after travel indicates that long-term carriage of Blastocystis is common. The associations between Blastocystis and the bacterial microbiota found in this study could imply a link between Blastocystis and a healthy microbiota, as well as with diets high in vegetables. However, we cannot answer whether the associations between Blastocystis and the microbiota are resulting from the presence of Blastocystis per se, or are a prerequisite for colonization with Blastocystis, which are interesting opportunities for follow-up studies.

I think this type of data reuse for completely different questions is highly useful, and I am very happy that Joakim Forsell and his colleagues contacted me to hear if it was possible to do a Blastocystis screen of this data. The full paper can be read here.

References

  1. Forsell J, Bengtsson-Palme J, Angelin M, Johansson A, Evengård B, Granlund M: The relation between Blastocystis and the intestinal microbiota in Swedish travellers. BMC Microbiology, 17, 231 (2017). doi: 10.1186/s12866-017-1139-7 [Paper link]
  2. Bengtsson-Palme J, Angelin M, Huss M, Kjellqvist S, Kristiansson E, Palmgren H, Larsson DGJ, Johansson A: The human gut microbiome as a transporter of antibiotic resistance genes between continents. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, 59, 10, 6551–6560 (2015). doi: 10.1128/AAC.00933-15 [Paper link]
  3. Andersen LO, Bonde I, Nielsen HB, Stensvold CR: A retrospective metagenomics approach to studying Blastocystis. FEMS Microbiology Ecology, 91, fiv072 (2015). doi: 10.1093/femsec/fiv072 [Paper link]

Last summer, I was approached by Muniyandi Nagarajan to write a book chapter for a book on metagenomics. The book was published earlier this month, and is now available online (1). I have to admit that I have not yet read the entire book, but my own chapter deals with selecting the right tools for metagenomic analysis, and discusses different strategies to perform taxonomic classification, functional analysis, metagenomic assembly, and statistical comparisons between metagenomes (2). The chapter also considers the pros and cons of automated computational “pipelines” for analysis of metagenomic data. While I do not point to a specific set of software that obviously perform better in all situations, I do highlight some analysis strategies that clearly should be avoided. The chapter also suggests a few among the set of robust and well-functioning software tools that, in my opinion, should be used for metagenomic analyses. To some degree, this paper overlaps with the review paper we wrote on using metagenomics to analyze antibiotic resistance genes in various environments, published earlier this year (3), but the discussion in the book chapter is far more general. I imagine that the book chapter could be used, for example, in teaching metagenomics to students in bioinformatics (that’s at least a use I envision myself). Finally, apart from my own chapter, I can also highly recommend the chapter by Boulund et al. on statistical considerations for metagenomic data analysis (4). The book is available to buy from here, and the chapter can be read here.

References

  1. Nagarajan M (Ed.) Metagenomics: Perspectives, Methods, and Applications. ISBN: 9780081022689. Academic Press, Elsevier, USA (2018). doi: 10.1016/B978-0-08-102268-9 [Link]
  2. Bengtsson-Palme J: Strategies for Taxonomic and Functional Annotation of Metagenomes. In: Nagarajan M (Ed.) Metagenomics: Perspectives, Methods, and Applications, 55–79. Academic Press, Elsevier, USA (2018). doi: 10.1016/B978-0-08-102268-9.00003-3 [Link]
  3. Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJ, Kristiansson E: Using metagenomics to investigate human and environmental resistomes. Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, 72, 2690–2703 (2017). doi: 10.1093/jac/dkx199 [Paper link]
  4. Boulund F, Pereira MB, Jonsson V, Kristiansson E: Computational and Statistical Considerations in the Analysis of Metagenomic Data. In: Nagarajan M (Ed.) Metagenomics: Perspectives, Methods, and Applications, 81–102. Academic Press,, Elsevier, USA (2018). doi: 10.1016/B978-0-08-102268-9.00004-5 [Link]