Human contamination in bacterial genomes has created thousands of spurious proteins

Genome Res. 2019 Jun;29(6):954-960. doi: 10.1101/gr.245373.118. Epub 2019 May 7.


Contaminant sequences that appear in published genomes can cause numerous problems for downstream analyses, particularly for evolutionary studies and metagenomics projects. Our large-scale scan of complete and draft bacterial and archaeal genomes in the NCBI RefSeq database reveals that 2250 genomes are contaminated by human sequence. The contaminant sequences derive primarily from high-copy human repeat regions, which themselves are not adequately represented in the current human reference genome, GRCh38. The absence of the sequences from the human assembly offers a likely explanation for their presence in bacterial assemblies. In some cases, the contaminating contigs have been erroneously annotated as containing protein-coding sequences, which over time have propagated to create spurious protein "families" across multiple prokaryotic and eukaryotic genomes. As a result, 3437 spurious protein entries are currently present in the widely used nr and TrEMBL protein databases. We report here an extensive list of contaminant sequences in bacterial genome assemblies and the proteins associated with them. We found that nearly all contaminants occurred in small contigs in draft genomes, which suggests that filtering out small contigs from draft genome assemblies may mitigate the issue of contamination while still keeping nearly all of the genuine genomic sequences.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • DNA Contamination*
  • Databases, Genetic
  • Genetic Variation
  • Genome, Archaeal
  • Genome, Bacterial*
  • Genome, Human*
  • Genomics* / methods
  • Genomics* / standards
  • High-Throughput Nucleotide Sequencing
  • Humans
  • Open Reading Frames
  • Repetitive Sequences, Nucleic Acid