Genome sequences of rare, uncultured bacteria obtained by differential coverage binning of multiple metagenomes

Journal name:
Nature Biotechnology
Year published:
Published online


Reference genomes are required to understand the diverse roles of microorganisms in ecology, evolution, human and animal health, but most species remain uncultured. Here we present a sequence composition–independent approach to recover high-quality microbial genomes from deeply sequenced metagenomes. Multiple metagenomes of the same community, which differ in relative population abundances, were used to assemble 31 bacterial genomes, including rare (<1% relative abundance) species, from an activated sludge bioreactor. Twelve genomes were assembled into complete or near-complete chromosomes. Four belong to the candidate bacterial phylum TM7 and represent the most complete genomes for this phylum to date (relative abundances, 0.06–1.58%). Reanalysis of published metagenomes reveals that differential coverage binning facilitates recovery of more complete and higher fidelity genome bins than other currently used methods, which are primarily based on sequence composition. This approach will be an important addition to the standard metagenome toolbox and greatly improve access to genomes of uncultured microorganisms.

At a glance


  1. Sequence composition-independent binning of metagenome scaffolds from the lab-scale bioreactor using differential coverage (HP+, HP-).
    Figure 1: Sequence composition–independent binning of metagenome scaffolds from the lab-scale bioreactor using differential coverage (HP+, HP).

    Circles represent scaffolds, scaled by the square root of their length and colored by GC content. Only scaffolds ≥5 kbp are shown. Clusters of similarly colored circles represent potential genome bins, the centroids of which are indicated by numbered circles and colored according to phylum-level taxonomic affiliation (Table 1 and Supplementary Table 2). This differential coverage plot provides the starting point for secondary refinement and finishing of genome assemblies (Fig. 2).

  2. Overview of the pipeline to obtain high-quality population genomes from multiple deep metagenomes using differential coverage as the primary binning method, illustrated using the population genome TM7-AAU-ii.
    Figure 2: Overview of the pipeline to obtain high-quality population genomes from multiple deep metagenomes using differential coverage as the primary binning method, illustrated using the population genome TM7-AAU-ii.

    Numbers refer to subsections in Online Methods and in the detailed step-by-step guide on GitHub. Steps 1–4: DNA was extracted using two different methods (HP+, HP), which produced different population abundances. Each sample (HP+, HP) was then shotgun-sequenced (150 bp paired-end, average 124 bp after trimming) followed by independent scaffold assembly. Only the HP scaffolds were used to extract population genome bins. Steps 5–8: preparation of data for the subsequent binning steps. Differential coverage was estimated by independently mapping the reads from each metagenome to the scaffolds from the HP assembly, to produce two abundance estimates (coverage) per scaffold. In addition, for each scaffold the GC content and tetranucleotide frequency was calculated, and conserved essential single-copy marker genes identified. Step 9: binning (clustering) of scaffolds into population genomes was done by plotting the two coverage estimates (one from each metagenome) against each other for all HP scaffolds (Fig. 1). Scaffold subsets clustering together represent putative population genomes and were extracted as initial bins. As multiple species could be present in the same coverage-defined subset, the selected scaffold subset was further refined using principal component analysis of tetranucleotide frequencies. Step 10: as some genes are present in multiple copies (for example, 16S rRNA or transposases) they will not be included in the initial coverage-defined subset. Instead paired-end read information is used to associate multiple copy genes with the appropriate genome bin (Supplementary Fig. 2). Steps 11, 12: all reads associated with a genome bin of interest are extracted and re-assembled using parameters optimized for each genome as the bins can now be treated as standard single genomes. Population genome assemblies were validated using conserved single-copy gene analysis, and through Circos (a visualization tool) in which all relevant assembly metrics, including FRCbam statistics23, are integrated to identify mis-assemblies and other structural problems. All data generation and integration are automated and can be carried out using a FASTA file of the assembled scaffolds and SAM files of the read mappings to the scaffolds.

  3. (a) Sequence composition-independent binning using metagenome coverage of two samples, A and C. Reanalysis of published metagenomes using the differential coverage approach.
    Figure 3: (a) Sequence composition–independent binning using metagenome coverage of two samples, A and C. Reanalysis of published metagenomes17 using the differential coverage approach.

    All circles represent scaffolds, scaled by the square root of their length and colored by GC content. Only scaffolds >2 kbp are shown for consistency with the original study. Clusters of scaffolds represent putative genome bins. (b) Coverage analysis of the scaffolds in the genome bin ACD7 in which ESOM was used for primary binning17. (c) Primary binning by differential coverage improved genome completeness (101 versus 89 essential genes) and removed non-target scaffolds from closely related populations (0 versus 11 duplicated genes and no low-coverage contamination). Ess., essential.

  4. Overview of the metabolism, cell wall characteristics and morphology of TM7.
    Figure 4: Overview of the metabolism, cell wall characteristics and morphology of TM7.

    (a) Metabolic reconstruction of the four TM7 genomes highlighting the presence and absence of pathways. See Supplementary Table 5 for details. (b) Genome tree of the bacterial domain constructed using a concatenated alignment of 38 phylogenetically conserved proteins and associated phylum-level cell envelope classification: Monoderm (M), Diderm (D), Diderm-LPS (DL), Diderm-Atypical (DA). Only some Spirochaetes have LPS28. The associated heat map shows protein families substantially enriched (black) or depleted in archetypal monoderm lineages (Actinobacteria and Firmicutes) relative to an archetypal diderm lineage (Proteobacteria), most of which have known roles in cell envelope biosynthesis. Black dots in the genome tree represents branches with ≥75% bootstrap support. (c) FISH micrographs of TM7 (red) cells showing coccus morphology with a size of ~0.7 μm in diameter. The images show that they are embedded in flocs and confirm they are in low abundance.

Accession codes

Primary accessions

NCBI Reference Sequence

Sequence Read Archive


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Author information


  1. Department of Biotechnology, Chemistry and Environmental Engineering, Aalborg University, Aalborg, Denmark.

    • Mads Albertsen,
    • Kåre L Nielsen &
    • Per H Nielsen
  2. Australian Centre for Ecogenomics, School of Chemistry & Molecular Biosciences, The University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia.

    • Philip Hugenholtz,
    • Adam Skarshewski &
    • Gene W Tyson
  3. Institute for Molecular Bioscience, The University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia.

    • Philip Hugenholtz
  4. Advanced Water Management Centre, The University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia.

    • Gene W Tyson


M.A., experimental design, data analysis and manuscript; P.H., data analysis and manuscript; A.S., data analysis; K.L.N., sequencing; G.W.T., data analysis and manuscript; P.H.N., experimental design and manuscript.

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    Supplementary Notes, Supplementary Figures 1–13 and Supplementary Tables 1–10

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    All scripts used in the manuscript, including a detailed step by step guide and example datasets.

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