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Over the past 10 years, microbial ecologists have largely abandoned sequencing 16S rRNA genes by the Sanger sequencing method and have instead adopted highly parallelized sequencing platforms. These new platforms, such as 454 and Illumina's MiSeq, have allowed researchers to obtain millions of high quality, but short sequences. The result of the added sequencing depth has been significant improvements in experimental design. The tradeoff has been the decline in the number of full-length reference sequences that are deposited into databases. To overcome this problem, we tested the ability of the PacBio Single Molecule, Real-Time (SMRT) DNA sequencing platform to generate sequence reads from the 16S rRNA gene. We generated sequencing data from the V4, V3-V5, V1-V3, V1-V5, V1-V6, and V1-V9 variable regions from within the 16S rRNA gene using DNA from a synthetic mock community and natural samples collected from human feces, mouse feces, and soil. The mock community allowed us to assess the actual sequencing error rate and how that error rate changed when different curation methods were applied. We developed a simple method based on sequence characteristics and quality scores to reduce the observed error rate for the V1-V9 region from 0.69 to 0.027%. This error rate is comparable to what has been observed for the shorter reads generated by 454 and Illumina's MiSeq sequencing platforms. Although the per base sequencing cost is still significantly more than that of MiSeq, the prospect of supplementing reference databases with full-length sequences from organisms below the limit of detection from the Sanger approach is exciting.
We updated the underlying data by resequencing the samples using the P6-C4 PacBio chemistry. The approach is similar to the previous version, but the overall conclusion has changed significantly.