16S rRNA gene-based profiling of the human infant gut microbiota is strongly influenced by sample processing and PCR primer choice

Alan W. Walker, Jennifer C. Martin, Paul Scott, Julian Parkhill, Harry J. Flint, Karen P. Scott

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Characterisation of the bacterial composition of the gut microbiota is increasingly carried out with a view to establish the role of different bacterial species in causation or prevention of disease. It is thus essential that the methods used to determine the microbial composition are robust. Here, several widely used molecular techniques were compared to establish the optimal methods to assess the bacterial composition in faecal samples from babies, before weaning.

The bacterial community profile detected in the faeces of infants is highly dependent on the methodology used. Bifidobacteria were the most abundant bacteria detected at 6 weeks in faeces from two initially breast-fed babies using fluorescent in situ hybridisation (FISH), in agreement with data from previous culture-based studies. Using the 16S rRNA gene sequencing approach, however, we found that the detection of bifidobacteria in particular crucially depended on the optimisation of the DNA extraction method, and the choice of primers used to amplify the V1–V3 regions of 16S rRNA genes prior to subsequent sequence analysis. Bifidobacteria were only well represented among amplified 16S rRNA gene sequences when mechanical disruption (bead-beating) procedures for DNA extraction were employed together with optimised “universal” PCR primers. These primers incorporate degenerate bases at positions where mismatches to bifidobacteria and other bacterial taxa occur. The use of a DNA extraction kit with no bead-beating step resulted in a complete absence of bifidobacteria in the sequence data, even when using the optimised primers.
Original languageEnglish
Article number26
Early online date22 Jun 2015
Publication statusPublished - 22 Jun 2015

Bibliographical note

The authors acknowledge the assistance of Grietje Holtrop (RINH-BioSS) with the statistical analysis of the data and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute’s 454 pyrosequencing team for generating 16S rRNA gene data. AWW, PS and JP received core funding support from the Wellcome Trust [grant number 098051]. AWW, JCM, HJF and KPS are funded by the Scottish Government (SG-RESAS).


  • 16S rRNA gene sequencing
  • bifidobacteria
  • infant
  • intestinal microbiota
  • FISH


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