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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Flexible taxonomic assignment of ambiguous sequencing reads

José C Clemente12, Jesper Jansson3 and Gabriel Valiente4*

Author Affiliations

1 Center for Information Biology and DNA Databank of Japan, National Institute of Genetics, Yata 1111, Mishima 411-8540, Japan

2 Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA

3 Ochanomizu University, 2-1-1 Otsuka, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 112-8610, Japan

4 Algorithms, Bioinformatics, Complexity and Formal Methods Research Group, Technical University of Catalonia, E-08034 Barcelona, Spain

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BMC Bioinformatics 2011, 12:8  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-12-8

Published: 7 January 2011

Abstract

Background

To characterize the diversity of bacterial populations in metagenomic studies, sequencing reads need to be accurately assigned to taxonomic units in a given reference taxonomy. Reads that cannot be reliably assigned to a unique leaf in the taxonomy (ambiguous reads) are typically assigned to the lowest common ancestor of the set of species that match it. This introduces a potentially severe error in the estimation of bacteria present in the sample due to false positives, since all species in the subtree rooted at the ancestor are implicitly assigned to the read even though many of them may not match it.

Results

We present a method that maps each read to a node in the taxonomy that minimizes a penalty score while balancing the relevance of precision and recall in the assignment through a parameter q. This mapping can be obtained in time linear in the number of matching sequences, because LCA queries to the reference taxonomy take constant time. When applied to six different metagenomic datasets, our algorithm produces different taxonomic distributions depending on whether coverage or precision is maximized. Including information on the quality of the reads reduces the number of unassigned reads but increases the number of ambiguous reads, stressing the relevance of our method. Finally, two measures of performance are described and results with a set of artificially generated datasets are discussed.

Conclusions

The assignment strategy of sequencing reads introduced in this paper is a versatile and a quick method to study bacterial communities. The bacterial composition of the analyzed samples can vary significantly depending on how ambiguous reads are assigned depending on the value of the q parameter. Validation of our results in an artificial dataset confirm that a combination of values of q produces the most accurate results.