Background: Molecular methods such as next-generation sequencing are actively being employed to characterize the vaginal microbiota in health and disease. Previous studies have focused on characterizing the biological variation in the microbiota, and less is known about how factors related to sampling contribute to the results. Our aim was to investigate the impact of a sampling device and anatomical sampling site on the quantitative and qualitative outcomes relevant for vaginal microbiota research. We sampled 10 Finnish women representing diverse clinical characteristics with flocked swabs, the Evalyn® self-sampling device, sterile plastic spatulas and a cervical brush that were used to collect samples from fornix, vaginal wall and cervix. Samples were compared on DNA and protein yield, bacterial load, and microbiota diversity and species composition based on Illumina MiSeq sequencing of the 16S rRNA gene. We quantified the relative contributions of sampling variables versus intrinsic variables in the overall microbiota variation, and evaluated the microbiota profiles using several commonly employed metrics such as alpha and beta diversity as well as abundance of major bacterial genera and species.
Results: The total DNA yield was strongly dependent on the sampling device and to a lesser extent on the anatomical site of sampling. The sampling strategy did not affect the protein yield or the bacterial load. All tested sampling methods produced highly comparable microbiota profiles based on MiSeq sequencing. The sampling method explained only 2% (p-value = 0.89) of the overall microbiota variation, markedly surpassed by intrinsic factors such as clinical status (microscopy for bacterial vaginosis 53%, p = 0.0001), bleeding (19%, p = 0.0001), and the variation between subjects (11%, p-value 0.0001).
Conclusions: The results indicate that different sampling strategies yield comparable vaginal microbiota composition and diversity. Hence, past and future vaginal microbiota studies employing different sampling strategies should be comparable in the absence of other technical confounders. The Evalyn® self-sampling device performed equally well compared to samples taken by a clinician, and hence offers a good-quality microbiota sample without the need for a gynecological examination. The amount of collected sample as well as the DNA and protein yield varied across the sampling techniques, which may have practical implications for study design.