Surprisingly extensive mixed phylogenetic and ecological signals among bacterial Operational Taxonomic Units

Nucleic Acids Res. 2013 May 1;41(10):5175-88. doi: 10.1093/nar/gkt241. Epub 2013 Apr 9.


The lack of a consensus bacterial species concept greatly hampers our ability to understand and organize bacterial diversity. Operational taxonomic units (OTUs), which are clustered on the basis of DNA sequence identity alone, are the most commonly used microbial diversity unit. Although it is understood that OTUs can be phylogenetically incoherent, the degree and the extent of the phylogenetic inconsistency have not been explicitly studied. Here, we tested the phylogenetic signal of OTUs in a broad range of bacterial genera from various phyla. Strikingly, we found that very few OTUs were monophyletic, and many showed evidence of multiple independent origins. Using previously established bacterial habitats as benchmarks, we showed that OTUs frequently spanned multiple ecological habitats. We demonstrated that ecological heterogeneity within OTUs is caused by their phylogenetic inconsistency, and not merely due to 'lumping' of taxa resulting from using relaxed identity cut-offs. We argue that ecotypes, as described by the Stable Ecotype Model, are phylogenetically and ecologically more consistent than OTUs and therefore could serve as an alternative unit for bacterial diversity studies. In addition, we introduce QuickES, a new wrapper program for the Ecotype Simulation algorithm, which is capable of demarcating ecotypes in data sets with tens of thousands of sequences.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Bacteria / classification*
  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Ecotype*
  • Phylogeny*
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA
  • Soil Microbiology