Absolute quantitation of microbiota abundance in environmental samples.
Tkacz A., Hortala M., Poole PS.
BACKGROUND: Microbial communities (microbiota) influence human and animal disease and immunity, geochemical nutrient cycling and plant productivity. Specific groups, including bacteria, archaea, eukaryotes or fungi, are amplified by PCR to assess the relative abundance of sub-groups (e.g. genera). However, neither the absolute abundance of sub-groups is revealed, nor can different amplicon families (i.e. OTUs derived from a specific pair of PCR primers such as bacterial 16S, eukaryotic 18S or fungi ITS) be compared. This prevents determination of the absolute abundance of a particular group and domain-level shifts in microbiota abundance can remain undetected. RESULTS: We have developed absolute quantitation of amplicon families using synthetic chimeric DNA spikes. Synthetic spikes were added directly to environmental samples, co-isolated and PCR-amplified, allowing calculation of the absolute abundance of amplicon families (e.g. prokaryotic 16S, eukaryotic 18S and fungal ITS per unit mass of sample). CONCLUSIONS: Spikes can be adapted to any amplicon-specific group including rhizobia from soils, Firmicutes and Bifidobacteria from human gut or Enterobacteriaceae from food samples. Crucially, using highly complex soil samples, we show that the absolute abundance of specific groups can remain steady or increase, even when their relative abundance decreases. Thus, without absolute quantitation, the underlying pathology, physiology and ecology of microbial groups may be masked by their relative abundance.