The Reliability of Metagenome-Assembled Genomes (MAGs) in Representing Natural Populations: Insights from Comparing MAGs against Isolate Genomes Derived from the Same Fecal Sample

Appl Environ Microbiol. 2021 Feb 26;87(6):e02593-20. doi: 10.1128/AEM.02593-20. Print 2021 Feb 26.


The recovery of metagenome-assembled genomes (MAGs) from metagenomic data has recently become a common task for microbial studies. The strengths and limitations of the underlying bioinformatics algorithms are well appreciated by now based on performance tests with mock data sets of known composition. However, these mock data sets do not capture the complexity and diversity often observed within natural populations, since their construction typically relies on only a single genome of a given organism. Further, it remains unclear if MAGs can recover population-variable genes (those shared by >10% but <90% of the members of the population) as efficiently as core genes (those shared by >90% of the members). To address these issues, we compared the gene variabilities of pathogenic Escherichia coli isolates from eight diarrheal samples, for which the isolate was the causative agent, against their corresponding MAGs recovered from the companion metagenomic data set. Our analysis revealed that MAGs with completeness estimates near 95% captured only 77% of the population core genes and 50% of the variable genes, on average. Further, about 5% of the genes of these MAGs were conservatively identified as missing in the isolate and were of different (non-Enterobacteriaceae) taxonomic origin, suggesting errors at the genome-binning step, even though contamination estimates based on commonly used pipelines were only 1.5%. Therefore, the quality of MAGs may often be worse than estimated, and we offer examples of how to recognize and improve such MAGs to sufficient quality by (for instance) employing only contigs longer than 1,000 bp for binning.IMPORTANCE Metagenome assembly and the recovery of metagenome-assembled genomes (MAGs) have recently become common tasks for microbiome studies across environmental and clinical settings. However, the extent to which MAGs can capture the genes of the population they represent remains speculative. Current approaches to evaluating MAG quality are limited to the recovery and copy number of universal housekeeping genes, which represent a small fraction of the total genome, leaving the majority of the genome essentially inaccessible. If MAG quality in reality is lower than these approaches would estimate, this could have dramatic consequences for all downstream analyses and interpretations. In this study, we evaluated this issue using an approach that employed comparisons of the gene contents of MAGs to the gene contents of isolate genomes derived from the same sample. Further, our samples originated from a diarrhea case-control study, and thus, our results are relevant for recovering the virulence factors of pathogens from metagenomic data sets.

Keywords: assembly; gene abundance; genome completeness; genome recovery; metagenomes; metagenomics.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Escherichia coli / genetics*
  • Escherichia coli / isolation & purification
  • Feces / microbiology*
  • Genome, Bacterial*
  • Humans
  • Metagenome