Non-specific amplification compromises environmental DNA metabarcoding with COI

Rupert Collins, J Bakker, Owen Wangensteen, A Soto, Laura Corrigan, David Sims, Martin J Genner, Stefano Mariani

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

30 Citations (Scopus)
35 Downloads (Pure)


Metabarcoding extra‐organismal DNA from environmental samples is now a key technique in aquatic biomonitoring and ecosystem health assessment. Of critical consideration when designing experiments, and especially so when developing community standards and legislative frameworks, is the choice of genetic marker and primer set. Mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase subunit I (COI), the standard DNA barcode marker for animals, with its extensive reference library, taxonomic discriminatory power and predictable sequence variation, is the natural choice for many metabarcoding applications. However, for targeting specific taxonomic groups in environmental samples, the utility of COI has yet to be fully scrutinized.
Here, by using a case study of marine and freshwater fishes from the British Isles, we quantify the in silico performance of twelve primer pairs from four mitochondrial loci – COI, cytochrome b, 12S and 16S – in terms of reference library coverage, taxonomic discriminatory power and primer universality. We subsequently test in vitro four primer pairs – three COI and one 12S – for their specificity, reproducibility, and congruence with independent datasets derived from traditional survey methods at five estuarine and coastal sites around the English Channel and North Sea.
Our results show that for aqueous extra‐organismal DNA at low template concentrations, both metazoan‐targeted and fish‐targeted COI primers perform poorly in comparison to 12S, exhibiting low levels of reproducibility due to non‐specific amplification of prokaryotic and non‐target eukaryotic DNAs.
An ideal metabarcode would have an extensive reference library upon which custom primers could be designed, either for broad assessments of biodiversity, or taxon specific surveys. Such a database is available for COI, but low primer specificity hinders practical application, while conversely, 12S primers offer high specificity, but lack adequate references. The latter, however, can be mitigated by expanding the concept of DNA barcodes to include whole mitochondrial genomes generated by genome‐skimming existing tissue collections.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages17
JournalMethods in Ecology and Evolution
Early online date25 Sep 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 25 Sep 2019


  • 12S
  • COI
  • eDNA
  • environmental DNA
  • metabarcoding
  • primer design

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