Microbiology, Metagenomics and Bioinformatics

Johan Bengtsson-Palme, University of Gothenburg

Browsing Posts in Bioinformatics

I will be giving a talk at the Third International symposium on the environmental dimension of antibiotic resistance (EDAR2015) next month (five weeks from now. The talk is entitled “Turn up the signal – wipe out the noise: Gaining insights into antibiotic resistance of bacterial communities using metagenomic data“, and will deal with handling of metagenomic data in antibiotic resistance gene research. The talk will highlight the some particular pitfalls related to interpretation of data, and exemplify how flawed analysis practices can result in misleading conclusions regarding antibiotic resistance risks. I will particularly address how taxonomic composition influences the frequencies of resistance genes, the importance of knowledge of the functions of the genes in the databases used, and how normalization strategies influence the results. Furthermore, we will show how the context of resistance genes can allow inference of their potential to spread to human pathogens from environmental or commensal bacteria. All these aspects will be exemplified by data from our studies of environments subjected to pharmaceutical pollution in India, the effect of travel on the human resistome, and modern municipal wastewater treatment processes.

The talk will take place on Monday, May 18, 2015 at 13:20. The full scientific program for the conference can be found here. Registration for the conference is still possible, although not for the early-bird price. I look forward to see a lot of the people who will attend the conference, and hopefully also you!

Metaxa2 has been updated to version 2.0.2 and can be downloaded from the Metaxa2 web site. The 2.0.2 update fixes two minor bugs; one causing the “.graph” file to display incorrect or no names for the regions of the LSU regions, and one causing misreporting of the number of sequences in single-end FASTQ files (paired-end files were reported correctly). The update also brings a slightly improved classifier. Thanks to Marco Severgnini for reporting the FASTQ file issue! The update is available here.

Some of you who think ITSx is running slowly despite being assigned multiple CPUs, particularly on datasets with only one kind of sequences (e.g. fungal) using the -t F option might be interested in trying out Andrew Krohn’s parallel ITSx implementation. The solution essentially employs a bash script spawning multiple ITSx instances running on different portions of the input file. Although there are some limitations to the script (e.g. you cannot select a custom name for the output and you will only get the ITS1 and ITS2 + full sequences FASTA files, as far as I understand the script), it may prove useful for many of you until we write up a proper solution to the poor multi-thread performance of ITSx (planned for version 1.1). In the coming months, I recommend that you check this solution out! See also the wiki documentation.

My speed tests shows the following (on a quite small test set of fungal ITS sequences):
ITSx parallel on 16 CPUs, all ITS types (option “-t all“):
3 min, 16 sec
ITSx parallel on 16 CPUs, only fungal ITS types (option “-t f“):
54 sec
ITSx native on 16 CPUs, all ITS types (options “-t all --cpu 16“):
4 min, 59 sec
ITSx native on 16 CPUs, only fungal types (options “-t f --cpu 16“):
5 min, 50 sec

Why fungal only took longer time in the native implementation is a mystery to me, but probably shows why there is a need to rewrite the multithreading code, as we did with Metaxa a couple of years ago. Stay tuned for ITSx updates!

A couple of days ago, a paper I have co-authored describing an ITS sequence dataset for chimera control in fungi went online as an advance online publication in Microbes and Environments. There are several software tools available for chimera detection (e.g. Henrik Nilsson’s fungal chimera checker (1) and UCHIME (2)), but these generally rely on the presence of a chimera-free reference dataset. Until now, there was no such dataset is for the fungal ITS region, and we in this paper (3) introduce a comprehensive, automatically updated reference dataset for fungal ITS sequences based on the UNITE database (4). This dataset supports chimera detection throughout the fungal kingdom and for full-length ITS sequences as well as partial (ITS1 or ITS2 only) datasets. We estimated the dataset performance on a large set of artificial chimeras to be above 99.5%, and also used the dataset to remove nearly 1,000 chimeric fungal ITS sequences from the UNITE database. The dataset can be downloaded from the UNITE repository. Thereby, it is also possible for users to curate the dataset in the future through the UNITE interactive editing tools.


  1. Nilsson RH, Abarenkov K, Veldre V, Nylinder S, Wit P de, Brosché S, Alfredsson JF, Ryberg M, Kristiansson E: An open source chimera checker for the fungal ITS region. Molecular Ecology Resources, 10, 1076–1081 (2010).
  2. Edgar RC, Haas BJ, Clemente JC, Quince C, Knight R. UCHIME improves sensitivity and speed of chimera detection. Bioinformatics, 27, 16, 2194-2200 (2011). doi:10.1093/bioinformatics/btr381
  3. Nilsson RH, Tedersoo L, Ryberg M, Kristiansson E, Hartmann M, Unterseher M, Porter TM, Bengtsson-Palme J, Walker D, de Sousa F, Gamper HA, Larsson E, Larsson K-H, Kõljalg U, Edgar R, Abarenkov K: A comprehensive, automatically updated fungal ITS sequence dataset for reference-based chimera control in environmental sequencing efforts. Microbes and Environments, Advance Online Publication (2015). doi: 10.1264/jsme2.ME14121
  4. 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

After almost a year in different stages of review and revision, in which the paper (but not the software) saw a total transformation, I am happy to announce that the paper describing Metaxa2 has been accepted in Molecular Ecology Resources and is available in a rudimentary online early form. The figures in this version are not that pretty, but those who wants to read the paper asap, you have the possibility to do so.

This means that if you have been using Metaxa2 for a publication, there is now a new preferred way of citing this, namely:

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

The paper (1), apart from describing the new Metaxa version, also brings a very thorough evaluation of the software, compared to other tools for taxonomic classification implemented in QIIME (2). In short, we show that:

  • Metaxa2 can make trustworthy taxonomic classifications even with reads as short as 100 bp
  • Generally, the performance is reliable across the entire SSU rRNA gene, regardless of which V-region a read is derived from
  • Metaxa2 can reliably recapture species composition from short-read metagenomic data, comparable with results of amplicon sequencing
  • Metaxa2 outperforms other popular tools such as Mothur (3), the RDP Classifier (4), Rtax (5) and the QIIME implementation of Uclust (6) in terms of proportion of correctly classified reads from metagenomic data
  • The false positive rate of Metaxa2 is very close to zero; far superior to many of the above mentioned tools, many of which assume that reads must derive from the rRNA gene

Metaxa2 can be downloaded here. We have already used it for around two years internally, and it forms the base of the taxonomic classifications in e.g. our recently published paper on antibiotic resistance in a polluted Indian lake (7).


  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. Caporaso JG, Kuczynski J, Stombaugh J et al.: QIIME allows analysis of high-throughput community sequencing data. Nature Methods, 7, 335–336 (2010).
  3. Schloss PD, Westcott SL, Ryabin T et al.: Introducing mothur: open-source, platform-independent, community-supported software for describing and comparing microbial communities. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 75, 7537–7541 (2009).
  4. Wang Q, Garrity GM, Tiedje JM, Cole JR: Naive Bayesian classifier for rapid assignment of rRNA sequences into the new bacterial taxonomy. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 73, 5261–5267 (2007).
  5. Soergel DAW, Dey N, Knight R, Brenner SE: Selection of primers for optimal taxonomic classification of environmental 16S rRNA gene sequences. The ISME Journal, 6, 1440–1444 (2012).
  6. Edgar RC: Search and clustering orders of magnitude faster than BLAST. Bioinformatics, 26, 2460–2461 (2010).
  7. Bengtsson-Palme J, Boulund F, Fick J, Kristiansson E, Larsson DGJ: Shotgun metagenomics reveals a wide array of antibiotic resistance genes and mobile elements in a polluted lake in India. Frontiers in Microbiology, 5, 648 (2014).

My colleague Henrik Nilsson has been interviewed by the ResearchGate news team about the recent effort to better annotate ITS data for plant pathogenic fungi. It’s an interesting read, and I think Henrik nicely underscores why large-scale efforts for improving and correcting sequence annotations are important. You can read the interview here, and the paper they talk about is referenced below.

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, Volume 67, Issue 1 (2014), 11–19. doi: 10.1007/s13225-014-0291-8 [Paper link]

A minor bug in the “its1.full_and_partial.fasta” file has been fixed in a minor update to ITSx (1.0.11) released to day. The bug occasionally caused newline characters at the end of a sequence to be skipped and the next entry to begin at the same row. The bug only manifested itself when ITSx was used with the --partial option and only in the above mentioned FASTA file. If you have been affected by the bug, you should have noticed as the resulting FASTA file would be considered corrupted by most bioinformatics software. The updated version of ITSx can be downloaded here.

If you’re looking for super-interesting jobs within bioinformatics, you don’t need to look any further. Instead, you should apply for a position at 1928 Diagnostics here in Gothenburg and join them in the fight against antibiotic resistant bacteria. The position is in the development team and the deadline for application is December 19. All the details can be found here.

Our paper describing the bacterial community of a polluted lake in India has now been typeset and appears in its final form in Frontiers in Microbiology. If I may say so, I think that the paper turned out to be very goodlooking and it is indeed nice to finally see it in print. The paper describes an unprecedented diversity and abundance of antibiotic resistance genes and genes enabling transfer of DNA between bacteria. We also describe a range of potential novel plasmids from the lake. Finally, the paper briefly describes a new approach to targeted assembly of metagenomic data — TriMetAss — which can be downloaded here.

Bengtsson-Palme J, Boulund F, Fick J, Kristiansson E, Larsson DGJ: Shotgun metagenomics reveals a wide array of antibiotic resistance genes and mobile elements in a polluted lake in India. Frontiers in Microbiology, 5, 648 (2014). doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2014.00648

One of the highlights of the Swedish Bioinformatics Workshop 2014 was of course the dinner entertainment, a song specially crafted for the event. It has now, fortunately, been put online. For anyone who might not catch all the words, here’s the complete lyrics for the song (which is based on the song “Java Jive” in the Manhattan Transfer arrangement):

The Bioinformatics ABC

Grab your coffee
Grab your tea
Put down your spoon now and listen to me
For the bioinformatics ABC
Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up

And C for Clustal, though it’s not that fast
Alternatives are Muscle and MAFFT
ABYSS and BLAST and Clustal, Muscle, MAFFT

D count reads with DESeq or E for EdgeR
And F for FastQC and G for GLIMMER
H for HMMER using Markov Chains
Hidden hidden Markov model

I for Inchworm;
Add Chrysalis and Butterfly and wish
Assemble fast with a sound that goes swish
Contig, contig, contig, contig, transcript

And the ton of tools for metagenomics
MEGAN, Megraft,
MetaPhlan, MG-RAST, Meta-GeneMark
And that’s just mentioning a few of them
(Talk it boy)

N for Newbler, old-school it is
If you’re still using 454 it’s a bliss
O for Oases, P for PyroNoise

Q is for Quake for that great quality
And R is for all those neat statistics
S for the Spades assembler, oh yeah

T for TopHat
U for Uclust
V for Velvet

There is Wham to align
XMatchView to review
And YASS to pursue
(But do you)
Know any tools beginning with Z?
Yeah, Zorro, Zorro, Zorro
Oh yeah