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Approaching the taxonomic affiliation of unidentified sequences in public databases – an example from the mycorrhizal fungi

R Henrik Nilsson1*, Erik Kristiansson2, Martin Ryberg1 and Karl-Henrik Larsson1

Author Affiliations

1 Göteborg University, Botanical Institute, Box 461, 405 30 Göteborg, Sweden

2 Chalmers University of Technology, Mathematical Sciences, 412 96 Göteborg, Sweden

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BMC Bioinformatics 2005, 6:178  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-6-178

Published: 18 July 2005

Abstract

Background

During the last few years, DNA sequence analysis has become one of the primary means of taxonomic identification of species, particularly so for species that are minute or otherwise lack distinct, readily obtainable morphological characters. Although the number of sequences available for comparison in public databases such as GenBank increases exponentially, only a minuscule fraction of all organisms have been sequenced, leaving taxon sampling a momentous problem for sequence-based taxonomic identification. When querying GenBank with a set of unidentified sequences, a considerable proportion typically lack fully identified matches, forming an ever-mounting pile of sequences that the researcher will have to monitor manually in the hope that new, clarifying sequences have been submitted by other researchers. To alleviate these concerns, a project to automatically monitor select unidentified sequences in GenBank for taxonomic progress through repeated local BLAST searches was initiated. Mycorrhizal fungi – a field where species identification often is prohibitively complex – and the much used ITS locus were chosen as test bed.

Results

A Perl script package called emerencia is presented. On a regular basis, it downloads select sequences from GenBank, separates the identified sequences from those insufficiently identified, and performs BLAST searches between these two datasets, storing all results in an SQL database. On the accompanying web-service http://emerencia.math.chalmers.se webcite, users can monitor the taxonomic progress of insufficiently identified sequences over time, either through active searches or by signing up for e-mail notification upon disclosure of better matches. Other search categories, such as listing all insufficiently identified sequences (and their present best fully identified matches) publication-wise, are also available.

Discussion

The ever-increasing use of DNA sequences for identification purposes largely falls back on the assumption that public sequence databases contain a thorough sampling of taxonomically well-annotated sequences. Taxonomy, held by some to be an old-fashioned trade, has accordingly never been more important. emerencia does not automate the taxonomic process, but it does allow researchers to focus their efforts elsewhere than countless manual BLAST runs and arduous sieving of BLAST hit lists. The emerencia system is available on an open source basis for local installation with any organism and gene group as targets.