Background: The field of metagenomics (study of genetic material recovered directly from an environment) has grown rapidly, with many bioinformatics analysis methods being developed. To ensure appropriate use of such methods, robust comparative evaluation of their accuracy and features is needed. For taxonomic classification of sequence reads, such evaluation should include use of clade exclusion, which better evaluates a method's accuracy when identical sequences are not present in any reference database, as is common in metagenomic analysis. To date, relatively small evaluations have been performed, with evaluation approaches like clade exclusion limited to assessment of new methods by the authors of the given method. What is needed is a rigorous, independent comparison between multiple major methods, using the same in silico and in vitro test datasets, with and without approaches like clade exclusion, to better characterize accuracy under different conditions.
Results: An overview of the features of 38 bioinformatics methods is provided, evaluating accuracy with a focus on 11 programs that have reference databases that can be modified and therefore most robustly evaluated with clade exclusion. Taxonomic classification of sequence reads was evaluated using both in silico and in vitro mock bacterial communities. Clade exclusion was used at taxonomic levels from species to class-identifying how well methods perform in progressively more difficult scenarios. A wide range of variability was found in the sensitivity, precision, overall accuracy, and computational demand for the programs evaluated. In experiments where distilled water was spiked with only 11 bacterial species, frequently dozens to hundreds of species were falsely predicted by the most popular programs. The different features of each method (forces predictions or not, etc.) are summarized, and additional analysis considerations discussed.
Conclusions: The accuracy of shotgun metagenomics classification methods varies widely. No one program clearly outperformed others in all evaluation scenarios; rather, the results illustrate the strengths of different methods for different purposes. Researchers must appreciate method differences, choosing the program best suited for their particular analysis to avoid very misleading results. Use of standardized datasets for method comparisons is encouraged, as is use of mock microbial community controls suitable for a particular metagenomic analysis.