Background. 16S rRNA gene sequences are routinely assigned to operational taxonomic units (OTUs) that are then used to analyze complex microbial communities. A number of methods have been employed to carry out the assignment of 16S rRNA gene sequences to OTUs leading to confusion over which method is optimal. A recent study suggested that a clustering method should be selected based on its ability to generate stable OTU assignments that do not change as additional sequences are added to the dataset. In contrast, we contend that the quality of the OTU assignments, the ability of the method to properly represent the distances between the sequences, is more important. Methods. Our analysis implemented six de novo clustering algorithms including the single linkage, complete linkage, average linkage, abundance-based greedy clustering, distance-based greedy clustering, and Swarm and the open and closed-reference methods. Using two previously published datasets we used the Matthew's Correlation Coefficient (MCC) to assess the stability and quality of OTU assignments. Results. The stability of OTU assignments did not reflect the quality of the assignments. Depending on the dataset being analyzed, the average linkage and the distance and abundance-based greedy clustering methods generated OTUs that were more likely to represent the actual distances between sequences than the open and closed-reference methods. We also demonstrated that for the greedy algorithms VSEARCH produced assignments that were comparable to those produced by USEARCH making VSEARCH a viable free and open source alternative to USEARCH. Further interrogation of the reference-based methods indicated that when USEARCH or VSEARCH were used to identify the closest reference, the OTU assignments were sensitive to the order of the reference sequences because the reference sequences can be identical over the region being considered. More troubling was the observation that while both USEARCH and VSEARCH have a high level of sensitivity to detect reference sequences, the specificity of those matches was poor relative to the true best match. Discussion. Our analysis calls into question the quality and stability of OTU assignments generated by the open and closed-reference methods as implemented in current version of QIIME. This study demonstrates that de novo methods are the optimal method of assigning sequences into OTUs and that the quality of these assignments needs to be assessed for multiple methods to identify the optimal clustering method for a particular dataset.
Keywords: 16S rRNA gene sequences; Bioinformatics; Culture-independent; Microbial ecology; Microbiome; Next generation sequencing; OTU; QIIME; mothur.