On the limits of 16S rRNA gene-based metagenome prediction and functional profiling


Molecular profiling techniques such as metagenomics, metatranscriptomics or metabolomics offer important insights into the functional diversity of the microbiome. In contrast, 16S rRNA gene sequencing, a widespread and cost-effective technique to measure microbial diversity, only allows for indirect estimation of microbial function. To mitigate this, tools such as PICRUSt2, Tax4Fun2, PanFP and MetGEM infer functional profiles from 16S rRNA gene sequencing data using different algorithms. Prior studies have cast doubts on the quality of these predictions, motivating us to systematically evaluate these tools using matched 16S rRNA gene sequencing, metagenomic datasets, and simulated data. Our contribution is threefold: (i) using simulated data, we investigate if technical biases could explain the discordance between inferred and expected results; (ii) considering human cohorts for type two diabetes, colorectal cancer and obesity, we test if health-related differential abundance measures of functional categories are concordant between 16S rRNA gene-inferred and metagenome-derived profiles and; (iii) since 16S rRNA gene copy number is an important confounder in functional profiles inference, we investigate if a customised copy number normalisation with the rrnDB database could improve the results. Our results show that 16S rRNA gene-based functional inference tools generally do not have the necessary sensitivity to delineate health-related functional changes in the microbiome and should thus be used with care. Furthermore, we outline important differences in the individual tools tested and offer recommendations for tool selection.

Microbial Genomics