Tag: Barcoding

Published paper: Improving mosquito barcoding

I have had the fortune to be involved in a study on the quality of reference material for mosquito barcoding for biodiversity studies. The study, which was led by Maurício Moraes Zenker at the Universidade Federal de São Carlos in Brazil, looked at the availability of public data for mosquitoes in online databases for two widely used DNA barcoding markers in Culicidae: the COI and ITS2 regions (1). Last week, this study was published in Scientific Reports.

The paper shows that around 30% of known species were covered for the COI gene in BOLD  and  GenBank, and 12% of species for ITS2 in GenBank. The Afrotropical, Australian and Oriental biogeographic regions had the lowest coverages, while the Nearctic, Palearctic and Oceanian regions had the highest. Countries with a higher diversity of mosquitoes tended to have lower coverage, which was surprisingly also the case for countries with higher numbers of medically important species. At the same time, countries with a higher number of endemic species tended to have a higher species coverage in the databases.

With this study, we would like to advocate for better curatorship of voucher specimens representing sequences in the databases. Also, an integrative taxonomic approach that combines various genetic markers with morphological analyses is important to allow a better use of DNA barcoding and metabarcoding in a diverse array of applications, including vector species detection and biodiversity monitoring.

Importantly, this work underscores how reliant DNA barcoding is on proper taxonomic foundations, including morphological characterisations. Molecular identification of species cannot happen in a vacuum! I would like to extend a big thanks for Maurício who invited me to take part in this study and who have done an excellent job putting it all together!


  • Moraes Zenker M, Pineda Portella T, Costa Pessoa FA, Bengtsson-Palme J, Galetti PM: Low coverage of species constrains the use of DNA barcoding to assess mosquito biodiversity. Scientific Reports, 14, 7432 (2024). doi: 10.1038/s41598-024-58071-1 [Paper link]

ITSx in Galaxy

I am happy to share with you that since a couple of months back there is an up-to-date version of ITSx available through Galaxy! The tool can be found here: https://usegalaxy.eu/root?tool_id=itsx

The person behind this is really Björn Grüning at the University of Freiburg. I am immensely thankful for the work he has put into this. Our intention to make sure that both the Galaxy version and the bioconda version are maintained in parallel to the one on this website, and continuously up to date!

Happy barcoding!

Minor ITSx update

A new version of ITSx is released today. This minor update contains two minor bug fixes and two small new features.

The first bug was that ITSx returned empty sequences in the FASTA file for no detections for large input files. This has now been fixed.

The second bug fix is a bit more fuzzy and involved some fine-tuning of how large input files are handled in ITSx to stabilise E-value and score cut-offs.

The two new features are:

  1. The possbility to put the temporary directory in a custom location using the --temp option.
  2. ITSx now warns when the input file contains sequences with identical identifiers, which usually leads to sequences being dropped from the input file.

The new update brings ITSx to version 1.1.3. Thanks for the users who have spotted bugs and suggested new features! Happy barcoding everyone!

Published paper: benchmarking resistance gene identification

Since F1000Research uses a somewhat different publication scheme than most journals, I still haven’t understood if this paper is formally published after peer review, but I start to assume it is. There have been very little changes since the last version, so hence I will be lazy and basically repost what I wrote in April when the first version (the “preprint”) was posted online. The paper (1) is the result of a workshop arranged by the JRC in Italy in 2017. It describes various challenges arising from the process of designing a benchmark strategy for bioinformatics pipelines 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 (2). The paper also somewhat connects to the database curation paper we published in 2016 (3), 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 2017 in Ispra, Italy. You can find the paper here (it’s open access).

On another note, the new paper describing the UNITE database (4) has now got a formal issue assigned to it, as has the paper on tandem repeat barcoding in fungi published in Molecular Ecology Resources last year (5).

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. 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
  3. 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
  4. Nilsson RH, Larsson K-H, Taylor AFS, Bengtsson-Palme J, Jeppesen TS, Schigel D, Kennedy P, Picard K, Glöckner FO, Tedersoo L, Saar I, Kõljalg U, Abarenkov K: The UNITE database for molecular identification of fungi: handling dark taxa and parallel taxonomic classifications. Nucleic Acids Research, 47, D1, D259–D264 (2019). doi: 10.1093/nar/gky1022
  5. Wurzbacher C, Larsson E, Bengtsson-Palme J, Van den Wyngaert S, Svantesson S, Kristiansson E, Kagami M, Nilsson RH: Introducing ribosomal tandem repeat barcoding for fungi. Molecular Ecology Resources, 19, 1, 118–127 (2019). doi: 10.1111/1755-0998.12944

ITSx truncate bug fix

I just uploaded a mini update to ITSx, fixing a bug that caused the --truncate option not to be accepted by the software in ITSx 1.1. This bug fix brings the software to version 1.1.1. No other changes have been introduced in this version. Download the update here. Happy barcoding!

Minor update to the COI database of Metaxa2

A few days ago, my attention was turned to a duplicate in the COI database bundled with Metaxa2 2.2. While this duplicate sequence should not cause any troubles for Metaxa2 itself, it has created issues for people using the database itself together with, e.g., QIIME. Therefore, I have today issued a very very minor update to the Metaxa2 2.2 package as well as the entry in the Metaxa2 Database Repository, removing the duplicate sequence. I deemed that this was not significant enough to issue a new version, particularly as no code was changed and it did not cause issues for the software itself, so the version will stay at 2.2 for the time being. Happy barcoding!

Published paper: The UNITE database

In the 2019 database issue, Nucleic Acids Research will include a new paper on the UNITE database for molecular identification of fungi (1). I have been involved in the development of UNITE in different ways since 2012, most prominently via the ITSx (2) and Atosh software which are ticking under the hood of the database.

In this update paper, we introduce a redesigned handling of unclassifiable species hypotheses, integration with the taxonomic backbone of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, and support for an unlimited number of parallel taxonomic classification systems. The database now contains around one million fungal ITS sequences that can be used for reference, which are clustered into roughly 459,000 species hypotheses (3). Each species hypothesis is assigned a digital object identifier (DOI), which enables unambiguous reference across studies. The paper is available as open access and the UNITE database is available open source from here.


  1. Nilsson RH, Larsson K-H, Taylor AFS, Bengtsson-Palme J, Jeppesen TS, Schigel D, Kennedy P, Picard K, Glöckner FO, Tedersoo L, Saar I, Kõljalg U, Abarenkov K: The UNITE database for molecular identification of fungi: handling dark taxa and parallel taxonomic classifications. Nucleic Acids Research, Advance article, gky1022 (2018). doi: 10.1093/nar/gky1022
  2. 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
  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

Published paper: Ribosomal tandem repeat barcoding for fungi

On Friday, Molecular Ecology Resources put online Christian Wurzbacher‘s latest paper, of which I am also a coauthor. The paper presents three sets of general primers that allow for amplification of the complete ribosomal operon from the ribosomal tandem repeats, covering all the ribosomal markers (ETS, SSU, ITS1, 5.8S, ITS2, LSU, and IGS) (1). This paper is important because it introduces a technique to utilize third generation sequencing (PacBio and Nanopore) to generate high‐quality reference data (equivalent or better than Sanger sequencing) in a high‐throughput manner. The paper shows that the quality of the Nanopore generated sequences was 99.85%, which is comparable with the 99.78% accuracy described for Sanger sequencing.

My main contribution to this paper is the consensus sequence generation script – Consension – which is available from my software page. Importantly, there are huge gaps in the reference databases we use for taxonomic classification and this method will facilitate the integration of reference data from all of the ribosomal markers. We hope that this work will stimulate large-scale generation of ribosomal reference data covering several marker genes, linking previously spread-out information together.


  1. Wurzbacher C, Larsson E, Bengtsson-Palme J, Van den Wyngaert S, Svantesson S, Kristiansson E, Kagami M, Nilsson RH: Introducing ribosomal tandem repeat barcoding for fungi. Molecular Ecology Resources, Accepted article (2018). doi: 10.1111/1755-0998.12944 [Paper link]

Published paper: The global topsoil microbiome

I’m really late at this ball for a number of reasons, but last week Nature published our paper on the structure and function of the global topsoil microbiome (1). This paper has a long story, but in short I got contacted by Mohammad Bahram (the first author) about two years ago about a project using metagenomic sequencing to look at a lot of soil samples for patterns of antibiotic resistance gene abundances and diversity. The project had made the interesting discovery that resistance gene abundances were linked to the ratio of fungi and bacteria (so that more fungi was linked to more resistance genes). During the following year, we together worked on deciphering these discoveries, which are now published in Nature. The paper also deals with the taxonomic patterns linked to geography (1), but as evident from the above, my main contribution here has been on the antibiotic resistance side.

In short, we find that:

  • Bacterial diversity is highest in temperate habitats, and lower both closer to the equator and the poles
  • For bacteria, the diversity of biological functions follows the same pattern, but for fungi, the functional diversity is higher closer to the poles and the equator
  • Higher abundance of fungi is linked to higher abundance and diversity of antibiotic resistance genes. Specifically, this is related to known antibiotic producing fungal lineages, such as Penicillium and Oidiodendron. There also seems to be a link between the Actinobacteria, encompassing the antibiotic-producing bacterial genus of Streptomyces and higher resistance gene diversity.
  • Similar relationships between the fungus-like Oomycetes and resistance genes was also found in ocean samples from the Tara Oceans project (2)

The results of this study indicate that both environmental filtering and niche differentiation determine soil microbial composition, and that the role of dispersal limitation is minor at this scale. Soil pH and precipitation seems to be the strongest drivers of community composition. Furthermore, we interpret our data to reveal that inter-kingdom antagonism is important in structuring microbial communities. This speaks against the notion put forward that antibiotic resistance genes might not have a resistance function in natural settings (3). That said, the most likely explanation here is probably a bit of both warfare and repurposing of genes. Soil seems to be the largest untapped source of resistance genes for human pathogens (4), and the finding that natural antagonism may be driving resistance gene diversification and enrichment may be important for future management of environmental antibiotic resistance (5,6).

It was really great to work with Mohammad and his team, and I sure hope that we will collaborate again in the future. The entire paper can be found in the issue of Nature coming out this week, and is already online at Nature’s website.


  1. Bahram M°, Hildebrand F°, Forslund SK, Anderson JL, Soudzilovskaia NA, Bodegom PM, Bengtsson-Palme J, Anslan S, Coelho LP, Harend H, Huerta-Cepas J, Medema MH, Maltz MR, Mundra S, Olsson PA, Pent M, Põlme S, Sunagawa S, Ryberg M, Tedersoo L, Bork P: Structure and function of the global topsoil microbiome. Nature, 560, 233–237 (2018). doi: 10.1038/s41586-018-0386-6
  2. Sunagawa S et al. Structure and function of the global ocean microbiome. Science 348, 6237, 1261359 (2015). doi: 10.1126/science.1261359
  3. Aminov RI: The role of antibiotics and antibiotic resistance in nature. Environmental Microbiology, 11, 12, 2970-2988 (2009). doi: 10.1111/j.1462-2920.2009.01972.x
  4. Bengtsson-Palme J: The diversity of uncharacterized antibiotic resistance genes can be predicted from known gene variants – but not always. Microbiome, 6, 125 (2018). doi: 10.1186/s40168-018-0508-2
  5. Bengtsson-Palme J, Kristiansson E, Larsson DGJ: Environmental factors influencing the development and spread of antibiotic resistance. FEMS Microbiology Reviews, 42, 1, 68–80 (2018). doi: 10.1093/femsre/fux053
  6. Larsson DGJ, Andremont A, Bengtsson-Palme J, Brandt KK, de Roda Husman AM, Fagerstedt P, Fick J, Flach C-F, Gaze WH, Kuroda M, Kvint K, Laxminarayan R, Manaia CM, Nielsen KM, Ploy M-C, Segovia C, Simonet P, Smalla K, Snape J, Topp E, van Hengel A, Verner-Jeffreys DW, Virta MPJ, Wellington EM, Wernersson A-S: Critical knowledge gaps and research needs related to the environmental dimensions of antibiotic resistance. Environment International, 117, 132–138 (2018).

Published paper: A Metaxa2 database for the arthropod COI locus

A few days ago I posted about that Bioinformatics had published our paper on the Metaxa2 Database Builder (1). Today, I am happy to report that PeerJ has published the first paper in which the database builder is used to create a new Metaxa2 (2) database! My colleagues at Ohio State University has used the software to build a database for the COI gene (3), which is commonly used in arthropod barcoding. The used region was extracted from COI sequences from arthropod whole mitochondrion genomes, and employed to create a database containing sequences from all major arthropod clades, including all insect orders, all arthropod classes and the Onychophora, Tardigrada and Mollusca outgroups.

Similar to what we did in our evaluation of taxonomic classifiers used on non-rRNA barcoding regions (4), we performed a cross-validation analysis to characterize the relationship between the Metaxa2 reliability score, an estimate of classification confidence, and classification error probability. We used this analysis to select a reliability score threshold which minimized error. We then estimated classification sensitivity, false discovery rate and overclassification, the propensity to classify sequences from taxa not represented in the reference database.

Since the database builder was still in its early inception stages when we started doing this work, the software itself saw several improvements because of this project. We believe that our work on the COI database, as well as on the recently released database builder software, will help researchers in designing and evaluating classification databases for metabarcoding on arthropods and beyond. The database is included in the new Metaxa2 2.2 release, and is also downloadable from the Metaxa2 Database Repository (1). The open access paper can be found here.


  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: Metaxa2 Database Builder: Enabling taxonomic identification from metagenomic and metabarcoding data using any genetic marker. Bioinformatics, advance article (2018). doi: 10.1093/bioinformatics/bty482
  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
  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, 6, e5126 (2018). doi: 10.7717/peerj.5126
  4. 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