Microbiology, Metagenomics and Bioinformatics

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

Browsing Posts tagged rRNA

One of the questions I have received regarding Metaxa2 is if it is possible to use it on other DNA barcodes. My answer has been “technically, yes, but it is a very cumbersome process of creating a custom database for every additional barcode”. Not anymore, the newly introduced Metaxa2 Database Builder makes this process automatic, with the user just supplying a FASTA file of sequences from the region in question and a file containing the taxonomy information for the sequences (in GenBank, NSD XML, Metaxa2 or SILVA-style formats). The preprint (1) has been out for some time, but today Bioinformatics published the paper describing the software (2).

The paper not only details how the database builder works, but also shows that it is working on a number of different barcoding regions, albeit with different results in terms of accuracy. Still, even with seemingly high misclassification rates for some DNA barcodes, the software performs better than a simple BLAST-based taxonomic assignment (76.5% vs. 41.4% correct classifications for matK, and 76.2% vs. 45.1% for tnrL). The database builder has already found use in building a COI database for anthropods (3), and we envision a range of uses in the near future.

As the paper is now published, I have also moved the Metaxa2 software (4) from beta-status to a full-worthy version 2.2 update. Hopefully, this release should be bug free, but my experience is that when the community gets their hands of the software they tend to discover things our team has missed. I would like to thank the entire team working on this, particularly Rodney Richardson (who initiated this entire thing) and Henrik Nilsson. The software can be downloaded here. Happy barcoding!


  1. Bengtsson-Palme J, Richardson RT, Meola M, Wurzbacher C, Tremblay ED, Thorell K, Kanger K, Eriksson KM, Bilodeau GJ, Johnson RM, Hartmann M, Nilsson RH: Taxonomic identification from metagenomic or metabarcoding data using any genetic marker. bioRxiv 253377 (2018). doi: 10.1101/253377 [Link]
  2. Bengtsson-Palme J, Richardson RT, Meola M, Wurzbacher C, Tremblay ED, Thorell K, Kanger K, Eriksson KM, Bilodeau GJ, Johnson RM, Hartmann M, Nilsson RH: Metaxa2 Database Builder: Enabling taxonomic identification from metagenomic and metabarcoding data using any genetic marker. Bioinformatics, advance article (2018). doi: 10.1093/bioinformatics/bty482 [Paper link]
  3. Richardson RT, Bengtsson-Palme J, Gardiner MM, Johnson RM: A reference cytochrome c oxidase subunit I database curated for hierarchical classification of arthropod metabarcoding data. PeerJ Preprints, 6, e26662v1 (2018). doi: 10.7287/peerj.preprints.26662v1 [Link]
  4. 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, 15, 6, 1403–1414 (2015). doi: 10.1111/1755-0998.12399 [Paper link]

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.


  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.


  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]

ITSx in Bioconda

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Mattias de Hollander at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology kindly informed me that they recently added the ITSx 1.1b version to the Bioconda package manager. This will make it easy for Conda users to install ITSx automatically into their systems and pipelines and also for others who are using conda. The Bioconda version can be found here. I would like to thank Mattias for this initiative and hope that the Bioconda version of ITSx will find much use!

Today marks the five year anniversary for the Metaxa software’s initial release. Much has happened to the software since; Metaxa started off as an rRNA extraction utility for metagenomic data (1), including coarse classification to organism/organelle type. Since it has gained full-scale taxonomic classification ability better or on par with other software packages (2), much greater speed, support for the LSU gene, gained a range of related software tools (3), and spurred development of other tools such as ITSx (4). I have also been involved in no less than four peer-reviewed publications directly related to the software (1-3,5).

But it does not end here; these five years were just the beginning. We are – in different constellations – working on further enhancements to Metaxa2, including support for more genes, an updated classification database, and better customization options. I am very much still devoted to keep Metaxa2 alive and relevant as a tool for taxonomic analysis of metagenomes, applicable whenever accuracy is a key parameter. Thanks for being part of the community for these five years!


  1. Bengtsson J, Eriksson KM, Hartmann M, Wang Z, Shenoy BD, Grelet G, Abarenkov K, Petri A, Alm Rosenblad M, Nilsson RH: Metaxa: A software tool for automated detection and discrimination among ribosomal small subunit (12S/16S/18S) sequences of archaea, bacteria, eukaryotes, mitochondria, and chloroplasts in metagenomes and environmental sequencing datasets. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, 100, 3, 471–475 (2011). doi:10.1007/s10482-011-9598-6. [Paper link]
  2. 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, 15, 6, 1403–1414 (2015). doi: 10.1111/1755-0998.12399 [Paper link]
  3. Bengtsson-Palme J, Thorell K, Wurzbacher C, Sjöling Å, Nilsson RH: Metaxa2 Diversity Tools: Easing microbial community analysis with Metaxa2. Ecological Informatics, 33, 45–50 (2016). doi: 10.1016/j.ecoinf.2016.04.004 [Paper link]
  4. Bengtsson-Palme J, Ryberg M, Hartmann M, Branco S, Wang Z, Godhe A, De Wit P, Sánchez-García M, Ebersberger I, de Souza F, Amend AS, Jumpponen A, Unterseher M, Kristiansson E, Abarenkov K, Bertrand YJK, Sanli K, Eriksson KM, Vik U, Veldre V, Nilsson RH: Improved software detection and extraction of ITS1 and ITS2 from ribosomal ITS sequences of fungi and other eukaryotes for use in environmental sequencing. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 4, 10, 914–919 (2013). doi: 10.1111/2041-210X.12073 [Paper link]
  5. Bengtsson-Palme J, Hartmann M, Eriksson KM, Nilsson RH: Metaxa, overview. In:Nelson K. (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Metagenomics: SpringerReference (www.springerreference.com). Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg (2013). doi: 10.1007/978-1-4614-6418-1_239-6 [Link]

Yesterday, Ecological Informatics put our paper describing Metaxa2 Diversity Tools online (1). Metaxa2 Diversity Tools was introduced with Metaxa2 version 2.1 and consists of

  • metaxa2_dc – a tool for collecting several .taxonomy.txt output files into one large abundance matrix, suitable for analysis in, e.g., R
  • metaxa2_rf – generates resampling rarefaction curves (2) based on the .taxonomy.txt output
  • metaxa2_si – species inference based on guessing species data from the other species present in the .taxonomy.txt output file
  • metaxa2_uc – a tool for determining if the community composition of a sample is significantly different from others through resampling analysis

At the same time as I did this update to the web site, I also took the opportunity to update the Metaxa2 FAQ to better reflect recent updates to the Metaxa2 software.

Metaxa2 Diversity Tools
One often requested feature of Metaxa2 (3) has been the ability to make simple analyses from the data after classification. The Metaxa2 Diversity Tools included in Metaxa2 2.1 is a seed for such an effort (although not close to a full-fledged community analysis package comparable to QIIME (4) or Mothur (5)). It currently consist of four tools.

The Metaxa2 Data Collector (metaxa2_dc) is the simplest of them (but probably the most requested), designed to merge the output of several *.level_X.txt files from the Metaxa2 Taxonomic Traversal Tool into one large abundance matrix, suitable for further analysis in, for example, R. The Metaxa2 Species Inference tool (metaxa2_si) can be used to further infer taxon information on, for example, the species level at a lower reliability than what would be permitted by the Metaxa2 classifier, using a complementary algorithm. The idea is that is if only a single species is present in, e.g., a family and a read is assigned to this family, but not classified to the species level, that sequence will be inferred to the same species as the other reads, given that it has more than 97% sequence identity to its best reference match. This can be useful if the user really needs species or genus classifications but many organisms in the studied species group have similar rRNA sequences, making it hard for the Metaxa2 classifier to classify sequences to the species level.

The Metaxa2 Rarefaction analysis tool (metaxa2_rf) performs a resampling rarefaction analysis (2) based on the output from the Metaxa2 classifier, taking into account also the unclassified portion of rRNAs. The Metaxa2 Uniqueness of Community analyzer (metaxa2_uc), finally, allows analysis of whether the community composition of two or more samples or groups is significantly different. Using resampling of the community data, the null hypothesis that the taxonomic content of two communities is drawn from the same set of taxa (given certain abundances) is tested. All these tools are further described in the manual and the recent paper (1).

The latest version of Metaxa2, including the Metaxa2 Diversity Tools, can be downloaded here.


  1. Bengtsson-Palme J, Thorell K, Wurzbacher C, Sjöling Å, Nilsson RH: Metaxa2 Diversity Tools: Easing microbial community analysis with Metaxa2. Ecological Informatics, 33, 45–50 (2016). doi: 10.1016/j.ecoinf.2016.04.004 [Paper link]
  2. Gotelli NJ, Colwell RK: Quantifying biodiversity: procedures and pitfalls in the measurement and comparison of species richness. Ecology Letters, 4, 379–391 (2000). doi:10.1046/j.1461-0248.2001.00230.x
  3. 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]
  4. Caporaso JG, Kuczynski J, Stombaugh J et al.: QIIME allows analysis of high-throughput community sequencing data. Nature Methods, 7, 335–336 (2010).
  5. 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).

Metaxa2 has been updated again today to version 2.1.3. This update adds a few features to the Metaxa2 Diversity Tools (metaxa2_uc and metaxa2_rf). The core Metaxa2 programs remain the same as for the previous Metaxa2 versions. The new features were suggested as part of the review process of a Metaxa2-related manuscript, and we thank the anonymous reviewers for their great suggestions!

New features and bug fixes in this update:

  • Added the Chao1, iChao1 and ACE estimators in addition to the original species abundance (“Bengtsson-Palme”) model in metaxa2_rf
  • Added the Raup-Crick dissimilarity method to the metaxa2_uc tool
  • Added a warning message when data is highly skewed for metaxa2_uc
  • Improved robustness of the ‘model’ mode of metaxa2_uc for highly skewed sample groups
  • Fixed a bug causing miscalculation of Euclidean distances on binary data in metaxa2_uc

The updated version of Metaxa2 can be downloaded here.

Happy barcoding!

I have today uploaded an updated version of Metaxa2 (version 2.1.2). This update primarily improves the memory performance of the Metaxa2 Diversity Tools. The core Metaxa2 programs remain the same as for the previous Metaxa2 versions.

New features and bug fixes in this update:

  • Dramatically improved memory performance of metaxa2_uc
  • Added the 'min' option to the -s flag in metaxa2_uc, which will cause the program to sample the number of entries present in the smallest sample from each sample
  • Fixes a bug that disregarded the level specified by the -l option in metaxa2_si
  • Minor updates and improvements on the manual

The updated version of Metaxa2 can be downloaded here.
Happy barcoding!

I got a very nice little e-mail yesterday evening, which made me realize that when I posted the Metaxa 2.1 update, I forgot to thank and credit the wonderful Metaxa/Metaxa2 community who have contributed with input on which Metaxa2 features that they would like to see implemented. Particularly, I would like to thank Thomas Haverkamp who suggested the reference option, Åsa Sjöling who brainstormed what led to the metaxa2_uc tool with me, and everyone who have suggested various downstream analysis tricks that have got baked into the Metaxa2 Diversity Tools.

Within the Metaxa team I would like to specifically thank Kaisa Thorell (particularly for the --split_pairs option) and Martin Hartmann (who said that the software should obviously be able to detect which BLAST version that was installed), who keep pushing for features and ideas to make the software better. Thanks a lot to all of you, and have a nice weekend!