DNA-Based Faecal Dietary Analysis: A Comparison of qPCR and High Throughput Sequencing Approaches
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The genetic analysis of faecal material represents a relatively non-invasive way to study animal diet and has been widely adopted in ecological research. Due to the heterogeneous nature of faecal material the primary obstacle, common to all genetic approaches, is a means to dissect the constituent DNA sequences. Traditionally, bacterial cloning of PCR amplified products was employed; less common has been the use of species-specific quantitative PCR (qPCR) assays. Currently, with the advent of High-Throughput Sequencing (HTS) technologies and indexed primers it has become possible to conduct genetic audits of faecal material to a much greater depth than previously possible. To date, no studies have systematically compared the estimates obtained by HTS with that of qPCR. What are the relative strengths and weaknesses of each technique and how quantitative are deep-sequencing approaches that employ universal primers? Using the locally threatened Little Penguin (Eudyptula minor) as a model organism, it is shown here that both qPCR and HTS techniques are highly correlated and produce strikingly similar quantitative estimates of fish DNA in faecal material, with no statistical difference. By designing four species-specific fish qPCR assays and comparing the data to the same four fish in the HTS data it was possible to directly compare the strengths and weaknesses of both techniques. To obtain reproducible quantitative data one of the key, and often overlooked, steps common to both approaches is ensuring that efficient DNA isolation methods are employed and that extracts are free of inhibitors. Taken together, the methodology chosen for long-term faecal monitoring programs is largely dependent on the complexity of the prey species present and the level of accuracy that is desired. Importantly, these methods should not be thought of as mutually exclusive, as the use of both HTS and qPCR in tandem will generate datasets with the highest fidelity.
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