Liu, J., Villanueva, P., Choi, J., Gunturu, S., Ouyang, Y., Tiemann, L.K., Cole, J.R., Glanville, K.R., Hall, S.J., McDaniel, M.D., Lee, J., Howe, A., Sept. 21, 2021. “MetaFunPrimer: an Environment-Specific, High-Throughput Primer Design Tool for Improved Quantification of Target Genes.” mSystems. DOI:10.1128/mSystems.00201-21.
Genes belonging to the same functional group may include numerous and variable gene sequences, making characterizing and quantifying difficult. Therefore, high-throughput design tools are needed to simultaneously create primers for improved quantification of target genes. We developed MetaFunPrimer, a bioinformatic pipeline, to design primers for numerous genes of interest. This tool also enables gene target prioritization based on ranking the presence of genes in user-defined references, such as environment-specific metagenomes. Given inputs of protein and nucleotide sequences for gene targets of interest and an accompanying set of reference metagenomes or genomes, MetaFunPrimer generates primers for ranked genes of interest. To demonstrate the usage and benefits of MetaFunPrimer, a total of 78 primer pairs were designed to target observed ammonia monooxygenase subunit A (amoA) genes of ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) in 1,550 publicly available soil metagenomes. We demonstrate computationally that these amoA-AOB primers can cover 94% of the amoA-AOB genes observed in the 1,550 soil metagenomes compared with a 49% estimated coverage by previously published primers. Finally, we verified the utility of these primer sets in incubation experiments that used long-term nitrogen fertilized or unfertilized soils. High-throughput quantitative PCR (qPCR) results and statistical analyses showed significant differences in relative quantification patterns between the two soils, and subsequent absolute quantifications also confirmed that target genes enumerated by six selected primer pairs were significantly more abundant in the nitrogen-fertilized soils. This new tool gives microbial ecologists a new approach to assess functional gene abundance and related microbial community dynamics quickly and affordably.