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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Coverage evaluation of universal bacterial primers using the metagenomic datasets

Dan-Ping Mao, Quan Zhou, Chong-Yu Chen and Zhe-Xue Quan*

Author Affiliations

Department of Microbiology and Microbial Engineering, School of Life Sciences, Fudan University, Shanghai, 200433, China

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BMC Microbiology 2012, 12:66  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-12-66

Published: 3 May 2012



The coverage of universal primers for the bacterial 16S rRNA gene plays a crucial role in the correct understanding of microbial community structure. However, existing studies on primer coverage are limited by the lack of appropriate databases and are restricted to the domain level. Additionally, most studies do not account for the positional effect of single primer-template mismatches. In this study, we used 7 metagenomic datasets as well as the Ribosomal Database Project (RDP) to assess the coverage of 8 widely used bacterial primers.


The coverage rates for bacterial primers were found to be overestimated by previous studies that only investigated the RDP because of PCR amplification bias in the sequence composition of the dataset. In the RDP, the non-coverage rates for all primers except 27F were ≪6%, while in the metagenomic datasets, most were ≫10%. If one considers that a single mismatch near the 3′ end of the primer might greatly reduce PCR efficiency, then some phylum non-coverage rates would change by more than 20%. Primer binding-site sequence variants that could not pair with their corresponding primers are discussed.


Our study revealed the potential bias introduced by the use of universal bacterial primers in the assessment of microbial communities. With the development of high-throughput, next-generation sequencing techniques, it will become feasible to sequence more of the hypervariable regions of the bacterial 16S rRNA gene. This, in turn, will lead to the more frequent use of the primers discussed here.