Lennon, J. T., M. E. Muscarella, S. A. Placella, B. K. Lehmkuhl, and J. Zhou. 2018. How, when, and where relic DNA affects microbial diversity. mBio 9:e00637-18.
Extracellular or “relic” DNA is one of the largest pools of nucleic acids in the biosphere. Relic DNA can influence a number of important ecological and evolutionary processes, but it may also affect estimates of microbial abundance and diversity, which has implications for understanding environmental, engineered, and host-associated ecosystems. We developed models capturing the fundamental processes that regulate the size and composition of the relic DNA pools to identify scenarios leading to biased estimates of biodiversity. Our models predict that bias increases with relic DNA pool size, but only when the species abundance distributions (SADs) of relic and intact DNA are distinct from one another. We evaluated our model predictions by quantifying relic DNA and assessing its contribution to bacterial diversity using 16S rRNA gene sequences collected from different ecosystem types, including soil, sediment, water, and the mammalian gut. On average, relic DNA made up 33% of the total bacterial DNA pool but exceeded 80% in some samples. Despite its abundance, relic DNA had a minimal effect on estimates of taxonomic and phylogenetic diversity, even in ecosystems where processes such as the physical protection of relic DNA are common and predicted by our models to generate bias. Our findings are consistent with the expectation that relic DNA from different taxa degrades at a constant and equal rate, suggesting that it may not fundamentally alter estimates of microbial diversity.
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