Table 2

Comparison of different techniques, including pros and cons, for analysis of microbial communities





Amplicon sequencing

The amplification and sequencing of a single gene from a broad selection of the microbiome. Traditionally applied to 16S rRNA for bacteria, but now being applied to a wide range of targets

Primarily cost and depth of analysis. Amplicon sequencing is very cheap and enables a rapid and deep characterization of the varying structure of microbial life under changing environmental gradients

This approach provides a narrow field of view, targeting a single gene, be it taxonomic or functionally informative, and only gives information about that one gene. It also can be affected by primer and amplification biases

Genomic sequencing

Sequencing of the genome of representatives of a community, ideally resulting in a single sequence, but more often resulting in 100s of genomic fragments

The genome enables a defined link between potential function and phylogeny, so that one can deduce that species x performs process y. When linked to a cultured cell, it can also be used to define gene function through targeted biochemical tests

Throughput is a problem. Sequencing the genome of isolated organisms has become rudimentary, but few can be isolated. Screening sorted cells from a community, followed by sequencing, is becoming viable, but often results in limited coverage of the genome owing to amplification bias

Metagenomic sequencing

Sequencing of a random sample of the genomic DNA from the cells of a microbial consortium

This technique enables broad observation of the taxonomic and functional genes from an entire community, without the bias associated with amplicon sequencing. With sufficiently deep sequencing, it is also possible to reassemble microbial genomes and other genetic elements

Current sequencing platforms require extensive starting material, although this is changing. Cost can be prohibitive, leading to only shallow characterization of the most dominant microbial taxa. The output only describes potential function, and it is often difficult to link function and phylogeny definitively. Also has the potential to sequence DNA from dead cells

Metatranscriptomic sequencing

Random sequencing of the messenger, small and other RNAs from a microbial community that define the mechanism and response of microbial gene expression

As with metagenomics, this technique enables broad taxonomic and functional characterization, but of expressed genes, which enables deeper analysis of the community and targets the active members of the community. Sequence data can be mapped to known genomes to help identify phylogenetic-specific functional responses

Cost is prohibitive as the steps required to remove the 90-95% of ribosomal RNA to enable deeper characterization of the mRNA are expensive and time consuming, which also limits throughput. RNA is sensitive to degradation, and the half-life of mRNA is very short, which creates biases from sampling the community.

Metaproteomic sequencing

Random sequencing of the amino acid sequences that represent the protein material in a microbial community

The primary advantage is the ability to identify proteins that have not only been expressed as mRNA but have also been folded and have potentially formed active proteins - for example, enzymes - in a cell. When combined with genomics and metatranscriptomics, it is possible to define protein isoforms and map protein function to phylogeny

The primary disadvantage of cost and throughput, which is still higher than metagenomics or metatranscriptomics. By itself, it is complicated to assign taxonomy

Metabolomic sequencing

Random characterization of the metabolic products present in a sample that might have been generated by a microbial community

This is the zenith of microbial activity, and when compared with that of other samples, the relative change in metabolite concentration can explain a lot about the functional consequence of genomic potential, or transcript and protein abundance

As with proteomics, metabolomics is limited by cost and throughput but also by identification of products. It also currently has a limit of detection, with very rare metabolites being hard to detect

Kelley and Gilbert Genome Biology 2013 14:202   doi:10.1186/gb-2013-14-2-202