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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

ITS as an environmental DNA barcode for fungi: an in silico approach reveals potential PCR biases

Eva Bellemain1*, Tor Carlsen2, Christian Brochmann1, Eric Coissac3, Pierre Taberlet3 and Håvard Kauserud2

Author Affiliations

1 National Centre for Biosystematics, Natural History Museum, University of Oslo, P.O. Box 1172 Blindern, NO-0318 Oslo, Norway

2 Microbial Evolution Research Group (MERG), Department of Biology, University of Oslo, P.O. Box 1066 Blindern, N-0316 Oslo, Norway

3 Laboratoire d'Ecologie Alpine (LECA), CNRS UMR 5553, University Joseph Fourier, BP 53, 38041 Grenoble Cedex 9, France

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BMC Microbiology 2010, 10:189  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-10-189

Published: 9 July 2010

Abstract

Background

During the last 15 years the internal transcribed spacer (ITS) of nuclear DNA has been used as a target for analyzing fungal diversity in environmental samples, and has recently been selected as the standard marker for fungal DNA barcoding. In this study we explored the potential amplification biases that various commonly utilized ITS primers might introduce during amplification of different parts of the ITS region in samples containing mixed templates ('environmental barcoding'). We performed in silico PCR analyses with commonly used primer combinations using various ITS datasets obtained from public databases as templates.

Results

Some of the ITS primers, such as ITS1-F, were hampered with a high proportion of mismatches relative to the target sequences, and most of them appeared to introduce taxonomic biases during PCR. Some primers, e.g. ITS1-F, ITS1 and ITS5, were biased towards amplification of basidiomycetes, whereas others, e.g. ITS2, ITS3 and ITS4, were biased towards ascomycetes. The assumed basidiomycete-specific primer ITS4-B only amplified a minor proportion of basidiomycete ITS sequences, even under relaxed PCR conditions. Due to systematic length differences in the ITS2 region as well as the entire ITS, we found that ascomycetes will more easily amplify than basidiomycetes using these regions as targets. This bias can be avoided by using primers amplifying ITS1 only, but this would imply preferential amplification of 'non-dikarya' fungi.

Conclusions

We conclude that ITS primers have to be selected carefully, especially when used for high-throughput sequencing of environmental samples. We suggest that different primer combinations or different parts of the ITS region should be analyzed in parallel, or that alternative ITS primers should be searched for.