- Open Access
Effective gene collection from the metatranscriptome of marine microorganisms
© Ogura et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2011
Published: 30 November 2011
Metagenomic studies, accelerated by the evolution of sequencing technologies and the rapid development of genomic analysis methods, can reveal genetic diversity and biodiversity in various samples including those of uncultured or unknown species. This approach, however, cannot be used to identify active functional genes under actual environmental conditions. Metatranscriptomics, which is similar in approach to metagenomics except that it utilizes RNA samples, is a powerful tool for the transcriptomic study of environmental samples. Unlike metagenomic studies, metatranscriptomic studies have not been popular to date due to problems with reliability, repeatability, redundancy and cost performance. Here, we propose a normalized metatranscriptomic method that is suitable for the collection of genes from samples as a platform for comparative transcriptomics.
We constructed two libraries, one non-normalized and the other normalized library, from samples of marine microorganisms taken during daylight hours from Hiroshima bay in Japan. We sequenced 0.6M reads for each sample on a Roche GS FLX, and obtained 0.2M genes after quality control and assembly. A comparison of the two libraries showed that the number of unique genes was larger in the normalized library than in the non-normalized library. Functional analysis of genes revealed that a small number of gene groups, ribosomal RNA genes and chloroplast genes, were dominant in both libraries. Taxonomic distribution analysis of the libraries suggests that Stramenopiles form a major taxon that includes diatoms. The normalization technique thus increases unique genes, functional categories of genes, and taxonomic richness.
Normalization of the marine metatranscriptome could be useful in increasing the number of genes collected, and in reducing redundancies among highly expressed genes. Gene collection through the normalization method was effective in providing a foundation for comparative transcriptomic analysis.
Marine microorganisms represent a major target for genetic resources and environmental monitoring [1, 2]. There remain, however, many uncultured organisms so that comprehensive studies at a molecular level have long been ignored. Recently, metagenomics has been developed as a cutting-edge approach for the genomic study of marine microorganisms and other environmental samples without the need for cultivation and isolation . As of May 2011, more than 470 research articles related to metagenomic studies were identified using a PubMed title search under keywords “metagenome” or “metagenomics.” Most of these studies were published within the last 5 years, indicating that this field of research has grown rapidly. This rapid growth was driven by recent developments in next-generation sequencers and high-throughput methods for genomic analysis [4, 5]. A metagenomic approach has been applied to many samples, such as seawater, soil, internal organs of animal species and so on, and has revealed the species and genetic diversity in various environmental samples .
Metagenomics offers a valuable approach to the study of species and genetic diversity; however, this approach cannot reveal active functional genes under actual environmental conditions. Changes in the environment lead to variations in gene expression patterns in organisms, and the interactions of genes across species might change their environment. Therefore, comparative studies of metatranscriptome under various conditions or in various samples are essential to to our understanding of genetic interactions under actual environmental conditions [7–9]. However, only 18 metatranscriptomic studies had been published as of May 2011 (according to the same search procedure as for metagenome) [10–13]. Unlike genomic studies, transcriptomic data vary according to environmental conditions, and a small number of highly expressed genes can disrupt the identification of other more infrequently expressed genes . Furthermore, the metatranscriptome is composed of the transcriptomes of many organisms so that, unlike single transcriptomic studies, large-scale sequencing efforts are required.
As for marine microorganism samples, we focused on plankton samples taken from the Inland Sea of Japan. Prefectural research institutes connected with Japan Fisheries have been conducting sampling of organisms for environmental monitoring in this area since the early 1970s, and have accumulated data on the appearance of phytoplankton and zooplankton . Phytoplankton monitoring has shown that diatoms have been the dominant phytoplankton group (>90%) over a 35-year period, and that there was a drastic shift from Skeletonema (-70%) to Chaetoceros dominance in the mid 1980s. While the monitoring of the dominant species has been conducted and reported, there is no information available on rare species and/or smaller-sized plankton species, such as Cryptophyceae, Haptophyceae and Prasinophyceae. Very recently, a new method of plankton metagenomic analysis was developed (Nagai, in press) and this technique allows all-encompassing analyses of almost all plankton components, including zooplankton and protozoa, in coastal waters. Therefore, an integrated metagenomic and metatranscriptomic analysis will allow us to obtain detailed information on all plankton species existing in coastal waters as well as on the gene expression in each component, resulting in a more complete understanding of coastal ecosystems. For instance, metatranscriptomic analyses before and after red tides (abnormal growth of phytoplankton) may lead to the identification of the mechanisms behind red tides and the associated harmful microalgae. It may also be possible to develop a new environmental assessment technique for fishing grounds and give more scientific input to the healthy management of fishing grounds through the comparison of highly polluted and non-polluted areas.
In prior metatranscriptomic comparisons, we considered that comprehensive gene collection, even in the absence of information regarding expression frequency, would be useful in gaining a better understanding of active functional genes in samples, and would contribute to database construction and microarray design for the cost-effective monitoring of changes in gene expression in various samples. Toward an efficient gene collection method, we propose the normalization of metatranscriptome samples. Normalization, in this case, is used to reduce the interference from highly expressed genes through the use of duplex-specific nuclease . We then utilize a Roche GS FLX sequencer capable of sequencing 300-500 base pairs for gene annotation. In this study, we collected a plankton sample in Hiroshima Bay (34o16′N; 132o16′E), in the Inland Sea of Japan, in December 2010. We then tested the effects of normalization using this plankton sample. We also examined the function of metatranscriptomic data and species diversity in the normalization treatment. Transcriptome data does not reflect species diversity or gene functions proportionally, but it is thought that the frequencies of expressed genes in a sample reflect the activities of functional genes in seawater.
Results and discussion
Comparison of normalized and non-normalized metatranscriptomic sample libraries
As noted in the Background section, one of the major purposes of metatranscriptomic analysis is to collect as many genes as possible. For this purpose, we speculated that the application of a normalization process during library construction could reduce the proportion of highly expressed genes, and contribute to the efficient collection of genes from samples. In the normalization procedure, we first denatured samples to make single-stranded DNA. We then used duplex-specific nuclease to degenerate highly expressed genes under the cooling process, whereby highly expressed genes are annealed more quickly and then digested by DNase.
Sequencing, quality control and assembly of the two libraries
Number of reads
Total base pairs
Number of reads
Total base pairs
Total number of genes
Total base pairs
Gene groups common to both libraries were thought to be highly expressed genes so we examined the frequencies of common genes in the raw data. The set of common genes consisted of 121,640 genes derived from the non-normalized library and 38,644 genes derived from the normalized library. We then counted the number of raw reads among these common genes and found that 291,487, and 171,248 reads, respectively, were included in the common gene group. This suggests that normalization treatment could reduce the number of highly expressed genes from 121,640 to 38,644 genes, or from 291,487 to 171,248 reads at the raw sequence level. We next examined the functions of common genes.
Functional annotation of metatranscriptomic data
Taxonomic distribution analysis of metatranscriptomic samples
We also identified genes belonging to the dominant species in our samples; i.e., diatoms and dinoflagellates. From homology searches against taxon-specific genes taken from the NCBI taxonomy browser, we estimated diatom and dinoflagellate genes with e-values of less than 1e-20 [23–25]. As a result, we found that 60,426 and 88,508, and 52,926 and 79,390 homologous genes for diatoms and dinoflagellates in the non-normalized and normalized libraries, respectively. This result shows that the normalization technique led to a 150% increase in the richness of genes. These results are in reasonably close agreement with the report by Nishikawa, which stated that 90% of marine plankton consists of diatoms and dinoflagellates.
Problems, solutions and future applications
An obvious problem of this normalized metatranscriptomic method is that we cannot evaluate the gene expression frequency of the sample. Based on the fact that many rRNAs genes were present in mRNA samples where they limit the opportunity to sequence infrequently expressed genes, the undertaking of metatranscriptomic studies using intact samples appears to be an inefficient and expensive strategy. Normalization in this analysis could reduce redundancy from 43% to 22%; however, many rRNA genes remained. The next target is to reduce rRNA in the library. Depletion of rRNA might allow for more efficient gene collection . Once the various expressed genes have been collected in the database, we could design microarrays utilizing these genes while omitting rRNA genes. Such microarrays might be a practical solution for the metatranscriptomic study of multi-samples.
Gene collection using the normalization procedure is effective in increasing the number of unique genes and in reducing the number of highly expressed genes in next-generation sequence data. Normalization appears to be effective in the identification of novel genes and the construction of gene collections without providing information on gene expression frequency. For multi-sample comparison, microarrays based on these gene collections can detect changes in gene expression and species interactions at the gene level .
Collection of seawater
A plankton sample was taken by the vertical towing of a plankton net (mesh size 20 µm) in Hiroshima Bay (34o16′N; 132o16′E) in December 2010, and the collected sample was immediately transported back to the laboratory. It was inoculated into a 50-ml centrifugation tube, and harvested by centrifugation at 1,500 x g for 2 min. The supernatant was discarded and 5 ml of the autoclaved seawater was added to disperse the plankton pellet equally. A 1-ml sample of plankton suspension was inoculated into each of four 1.5-ml tubes (A.150; Assist, Tokyo, Japan). The plankton suspension was then centrifuged at 10,000 x g for 1 min and the supernatant was completely removed by pipetting.
For RNA extraction from the plankton pellets, we homogenized the pellets using a pellet pestle motor (Kontes Glass, Vineland, NJ, USA) for 20 s on ice, and the RNAs were extracted using an RNAqueous Kit (Ambion, Austin, Texas, USA) according to the manufacture’s protocol.
Library construction and normalization
The normalized cDNA library was constructed as follows. We extracted poly-A RNAs from samples as described above. First-strand cDNA was normalized using Trimmer-Direct (cDNA Normalization Kit). Double-strand cDNA fractions formed by abundant transcripts were degraded by duplex-specific nuclease (DSN) and synthesized using a CDS-3M adapter and SMART IV Oligonucleotide. cDNAs were then amplified with 20 cycles of polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Amplified cDNA was quantitated using a NanoDrop system (NanoDrop Technologies, Wilmington, USA).
Library construction for Roche GS FLX and sequencing
The normalized and non-normalized cDNA libraries were fragmented into 500-800bp using a GS FLX Titanium Rapid Library Preparation Kit (Roche) according to the manufacturer's protocol. These fragments were then amplified on beads by emulsion polymerase chain reaction, and the amplified fragments in each cDNA library were pyrosequenced on a 1/2 section of picotiterplate (one plate in total) using the 454 GS FLX Titanium system and reagents (Roche). Sequence reads were submitted to the Short Read Archive (Accession number:DRA000443).
Quality control and assembly
We trimmed vector sequences and low-quality sequences from the raw data using the Lucy2 software developed by Li and Chou . We then searched sequences with a 5' cap and poly-A tail and removed them from the subsequent assembly process as full-length sequences do not contribute to sequence assemblies. Sequence assembly was performed using the Mira3 software developed by Chevreux et al. .
Homology search and databases
Homology search software, BLAT, was used to find homologous sequences between the non-normalized and normalized libraries with a threshold identity score of 100.
Taxonomy distribution analysis
A database of fully aligned and up-to-date small (16S/18S, SSU) and large (23S/28S, LSU) subunit ribosomal RNAs taken from the SILVA databases was used to classify the taxonomic distribution of our metatranscriptomic data. We conducted a BLAT search against the above database with a cutoff score value of 100. We used Domain and Kingdom only to classify species groups, such as Eukaryota: Alveolata, already classified in the SILVA databases.
We thank Dr. Masa-aki Yoshida of Ochanomizu University for his kind help in cDNA library construction of marine samples. We thank Ms. Yukiko Ishikura of Kyoto University for her kind help in construction of the assembly pipeline. This work was supported by a grant from the Japan Science and Technology Agency to AO and a grant from the Fisheries Research Agency of Japan to SN.
This article has been published as part of BMC Genomics Volume 12 Supplement 3, 2011: Tenth International Conference on Bioinformatics – First ISCB Asia Joint Conference 2011 (InCoB/ISCB-Asia 2011): Computational Biology. The full contents of the supplement are available online at http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2164/12?issue=S3.
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