Background: Metagenomics has transformed our understanding of microbial diversity across ecosystems, with recent advances enabling de novo assembly of genomes from metagenomes. These metagenome-assembled genomes are critical to provide ecological, evolutionary, and metabolic context for all the microbes and viruses yet to be cultivated. Metagenomes can now be generated from nanogram to subnanogram amounts of DNA. However, these libraries require several rounds of PCR amplification before sequencing, and recent data suggest these typically yield smaller and more fragmented assemblies than regular metagenomes.
Methods: Here we evaluate de novo assembly methods of 169 PCR-amplified metagenomes, including 25 for which an unamplified counterpart is available, to optimize specific assembly approaches for PCR-amplified libraries. We first evaluated coverage bias by mapping reads from PCR-amplified metagenomes onto reference contigs obtained from unamplified metagenomes of the same samples. Then, we compared different assembly pipelines in terms of assembly size (number of bp in contigs ≥ 10kb) and error rates to evaluate which are the best suited for PCR-amplified metagenomes.
Results: . Read mapping analyses revealed that the depth of coverage within individual genomes is significantly more uneven in PCR-amplified datasets versus unamplified metagenomes, with regions of high depth of coverage enriched in short inserts. This enrichment scales with the number of PCR cycles performed, and is presumably due to preferential amplification of short inserts. Standard assembly pipelines are confounded by this type of coverage unevenness, so we evaluated other assembly options to mitigate these issues. We found that a pipeline combining read deduplication and an assembly algorithm originally designed to recover genomes from libraries generated after whole genome amplification (single-cell SPAdes) frequently improved assembly of contigs ≥ 10kb by 10 to 100-fold for low input metagenomes.
Conclusions: PCR-amplified metagenomes have enabled scientists to explore communities traditionally challenging to describe, including some with extremely low biomass or from which DNA is particularly difficult to extract. Here we show that a modified assembly pipeline can lead to an improved de novo genome assembly from PCR-amplified datasets, and enables a better genome recovery from low input metagenomes.