The Barcode Blog

A mostly scientific blog about short DNA sequences for species identification and discovery. I encourage your commentary. -- Mark Stoeckle

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How accurate are BARCODE databases?

DNA barcode databases are a kind of wikipedia of DNA identifiers, with contributions by thousands of researchers. How accurate are they?  How do records that meet the BARCODE standard compare to routine GenBank records? How many BARCODE records represent pseudogenes masquering as their functional counterparts?

In case you missed this, Kevin Kerr and I recently analyzed sequencing error among 11,000 avian BARCODEs representing 2,700 bird species (PLoS ONE e43992 2012), using a frequency matrix approach to look at patterns of variation. As illustrated below, we found that very low frequency nucleotide variants (VLFs) found in single individuals of a species (labeled “singletons” in figure) are strongly concentrated at the ends of the barcode segment, consistent with sequencing error.

In contrast, very low frequency variants found in two or more individuals of a species (labeled “shared” in figure) provided a nice control–these were relatively evenly distributed, consistent with biological origin. Not surprisingly, given that most of the very rare nucleotide variants were associated with amino acid substitutions, very rare amino acid variants showed the same distribution patterns.

In addition to analyzing sequencing error, we closely examined the small fraction (0.1%) of BARCODEs with multiple very low frequency variants shared among individuals of a species. Based on review of trace files deposited as part of BARCODE standard, these unusually divergent versions of COI turned out to be overlooked cryptic pseudogenes lacking stop codons!

We were able to calculate an error rate for the dataset, using observation that most (94%) second codon positions were >99.9% conserved, which meant that nearly all sequencing errors at second position sites would be detectable as very low frequency (<0.1%) variants. The calculated upper limit of sequencing error was 8 x 10-5 errors/nucleotide, which is 1-2 orders of magnitude higher than generally cited for direct Sanger sequencing of amplified DNA, but unlikely to compromise species identification.  Overall, we found about 3% of BARCODEs have 1 or more errors (ave 1.4). To our knowledge, this is the first assessment of sequencing error for a large public sequence database with multiple contributors. It might be useful to annotate those records with probable sequencing errors or that represent cryptic pseudogenes; I believe that annotation is possible in BOLD and not in GenBank.

In addition to confirming the high quality of the avian BARCODE database we were able to demonstrate significant quality improvement in avian BARCODE and non-BARCODE COI records deposited in GenBank over the past decade as shown at right (bars indicate 95% confidence interval).

The frequency matrix we describe has potential application for genetic database quality assessment, discovery of cryptic pseudogenes, and studies of low-level variation.

Our results were presented at the Third European Congress for the Barcode of Life (ECBOL3) held at Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and the Arts (KVAB) in Brussels in September (group photo below).

Powerpoint based on PLoS ONE article is available here: freq matrix stoeckle 8nov2012

This entry was posted on Thursday, November 8th, 2012 at 6:42 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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About this site

This web site is an outgrowth of the Taxonomy, DNA, and Barcode of Life meeting held at Banbury Center, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, September 9-12, 2003. It is designed and managed by Mark Stoeckle, Perrin Meyer, and Jason Yung at the Program for the Human Environment (PHE) at The Rockefeller University.

About the Program for the Human Environment

The involvement of the Program for the Human Environment in DNA barcoding dates to Jesse Ausubel's attendance in February 2002 at a conference in Nova Scotia organized by the Canadian Center for Marine Biodiversity. At the conference, Paul Hebert presented for the first time his concept of large-scale DNA barcoding for species identification. Impressed by the potential for this technology to address difficult challenges in the Census of Marine Life, Jesse agreed with Paul on encouraging a conference to explore the contribution taxonomy and DNA could make to the Census as well as other large-scale terrestrial efforts. In his capacity as a Program Director of the Sloan Foundation, Jesse turned to the Banbury Conference Center of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, whose leader Jan Witkowski prepared a strong proposal to explore both the scientific reliability of barcoding and the processes that might bring it to broad application. Concurrently, PHE researcher Mark Stoeckle began to work with the Hebert lab on analytic studies of barcoding in birds. Our involvement in barcoding now takes 3 forms: assisting the organizational development of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life and the Barcode of Life Initiative; contributing to the scientific development of the field, especially by studies in birds, and contributing to public understanding of the science and technology of barcoding and its applications through improved visualization techniques and preparation of brochures and other broadly accessible means, including this website. While the Sloan Foundation continues to support CBOL through a grant to the Smithsonian Institution, it does not provide financial support for barcoding research itself or support to the PHE for its research in this field.