The application of rarefaction techniques to molecular inventories of microbial diversity

Methods in Enzymology
Jennifer B Hughes, Jessica J Hellmann


With the growing capacity to inventory microbial community diversity, the need for statistical methods to compare community inventories is also growing. Several approaches have been proposed for comparing the diversity of microbial communities: some adapted from traditional ecology and others designed specifically for molecular inventories of microbes. Rarefaction is one statistical method that is commonly applied in microbial studies, and this chapter discusses the procedure and its advantages and disadvantages. Rarefaction compares observed taxon richness at a standardized sampling effort using confidence intervals. Special emphasis is placed here on the need for precise, rather than unbiased, estimation methods in microbial ecology, but precision can be judged only with a very large sample or with multiple samples drawn from a single community. With low sample sizes, rarefaction curves also have the potential to lead to incorrect rankings of relative species richness, but this chapter discusses a new method with the potential to address this problem. Finally, this chapter shows how rarefaction can be applied to the comparison of the taxonomic similarity of microbial communities.


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