RNA preservation agents and nucleic acid extraction method bias perceived bacterial community composition

PLoS One. 2015 Mar 23;10(3):e0121659. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0121659. eCollection 2015.


Bias is a pervasive problem when characterizing microbial communities. An important source is the difference in lysis efficiencies of different populations, which vary depending on the extraction protocol used. To avoid such biases impacting comparisons between gene and transcript abundances in the environment, the use of one protocol that simultaneously extracts both types of nucleic acids from microbial community samples has gained popularity. However, knowledge regarding tradeoffs to combined nucleic acid extraction protocols is limited, particularly regarding yield and biases in the observed community composition. Here, we evaluated a commercially available protocol for simultaneous extraction of DNA and RNA, which we adapted for freshwater microbial community samples that were collected on filters. DNA and RNA yields were comparable to other commonly used, but independent DNA and RNA extraction protocols. RNA protection agents benefited RNA quality, but decreased DNA yields significantly. Choice of extraction protocol influenced the perceived bacterial community composition, with strong method-dependent biases observed for specific phyla such as the Verrucomicrobia. The combined DNA/RNA extraction protocol detected significantly higher levels of Verrucomicrobia than the other protocols, and those higher numbers were confirmed by microscopic analysis. Use of RNA protection agents as well as independent sequencing runs caused a significant shift in community composition as well, albeit smaller than the shift caused by using different extraction protocols. Despite methodological biases, sample origin was the strongest determinant of community composition. However, when the abundance of specific phylogenetic groups is of interest, researchers need to be aware of the biases their methods introduce. This is particularly relevant if different methods are used for DNA and RNA extraction, in addition to using RNA protection agents only for RNA samples.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / classification
  • Bacteria / genetics*
  • DNA / chemistry
  • DNA / isolation & purification
  • Fresh Water / microbiology
  • Nucleic Acids / chemistry
  • Nucleic Acids / isolation & purification*
  • RNA / chemistry
  • RNA / isolation & purification
  • Sequence Analysis / methods*


  • Nucleic Acids
  • RNA
  • DNA

Associated data

  • BioProject/PRJNA271696
  • SRA/SRP051811

Grant support

This work was supported by funds from the University of Michigan to VJD. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.