How to Count Our Microbes? The Effect of Different Quantitative Microbiome Profiling Approaches

Gianluca Galazzo, Niels van Best, Birke J. Benedikter, Kevin Janssen, Liene Bervoets, Christel Driessen, Melissa Oomen, Mayk Lucchesi, Pascalle H. van Eijck, Heike E. F. Becker, Mathias W. Hornef, Paul H. Savelkoul, Frank R. M. Stassen, Petra F. Wolffs, John Penders*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Next-generation sequencing (NGS) has instigated the research on the role of the microbiome in health and disease. The compositional nature of such microbiome datasets makes it however challenging to identify those microbial taxa that are truly associated with an intervention or health outcome. Quantitative microbiome profiling overcomes the compositional structure of microbiome sequencing data by integrating absolute quantification of microbial abundances into the NGS data. Both cell-based methods (e.g., flow cytometry) and molecular methods (qPCR) have been used to determine the absolute microbial abundances, but to what extent different quantification methods generate similar quantitative microbiome profiles has so far not been explored. Here we compared relative microbiome profiling (without incorporation of microbial quantification) to three variations of quantitative microbiome profiling: (1) microbial cell counting using flow cytometry (QMP), (2) counting of microbial cells using flow cytometry combined with Propidium Monoazide pre-treatment of fecal samples before metagenomics DNA isolation in order to only profile the microbial composition of intact cells (QMP-PMA), and (3) molecular based quantification of the microbial load using qPCR targeting the 16S rRNA gene. Although qPCR and flow cytometry both resulted in accurate and strongly correlated results when quantifying the bacterial abundance of a mock community of bacterial cells, the two methods resulted in highly divergent quantitative microbial profiles when analyzing the microbial composition of fecal samples from 16 healthy volunteers. These differences could not be attributed to the presence of free extracellular prokaryotic DNA in the fecal samples as sample pre-treatment with Propidium Monoazide did not improve the concordance between qPCR-based and flow cytometry-based QMP. Also lack of precision of qPCR was ruled out as a major cause of the disconcordant findings, since quantification of the fecal microbial load by the highly sensitive digital droplet PCR correlated strongly with qPCR. In conclusion, quantitative microbiome profiling is an elegant approach to bypass the compositional nature of microbiome NGS data, however it is important to realize that technical sources of variability may introduce substantial additional bias depending on the quantification method being used.

Original languageEnglish
Article number403
Number of pages10
JournalFrontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology
Publication statusPublished - 7 Aug 2020


  • digital droplet PCR
  • microbiota
  • viability PCR
  • 16S rRNA gene
  • flow cytometry
  • quantitative PCR


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