Sequencing of the 16S ribosomal RNA (rRNA) gene is widely used to survey microbial communities. Specialized 16S rRNA databases have been developed to support this approach including Greengenes, RDP and SILVA. Most taxonomy annotations in these databases are predictions from sequence rather than authoritative assignments based on studies of type strains or isolates. In this work, I investigated the taxonomy annotations and guide trees provided by these databases. Using a blinded test, I estimated that the annotation error rate of the RDP database is ∼10%. The branching orders of the Greengenes and SILVA guide trees were found to disagree at comparable rates with each other and with taxonomy annotations according to the training set (authoritative reference) provided by RDP, indicating that the trees have comparable quality. Pervasive conflicts between tree branching order and type strain taxonomies strongly suggest that the guide trees are unreliable guides to phylogeny. I found 249,490 identical sequences with conflicting annotations in SILVA v128 and Greengenes v13.5 at ranks up to phylum (7,804 conflicts), indicating that the annotation error rate in these databases is ∼17%.
Keywords: Bioinformatics; Microbiology; Taxonomy.