Comparison of k-mer-based de novo comparative metagenomic tools and approaches

Alise Jany Ponsero, Matthew Miller, Bonnie Louise Hurwitz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Aim: Comparative metagenomic analysis requires measuring a pairwise similarity between metagenomes in the dataset. Reference-based methods that compute a beta-diversity distance between two metagenomes are highly dependent on the quality and completeness of the reference database, and their application on less studied microbiota can be challenging. On the other hand, de-novo comparative metagenomic methods only rely on the sequence composition of metagenomes to compare datasets. While each one of these approaches has its strengths and limitations, their comparison is currently limited. Methods: We developed sets of simulated short-reads metagenomes to (1) compare k-mer-based and taxonomy-based distances and evaluate the impact of technical and biological variables on these metrics and (2) evaluate the effect of k-mer sketching and filtering. We used a real-world metagenomic dataset to provide an overview of the currently available tools for de novo metagenomic comparative analysis. Results: Using simulated metagenomes of known composition and controlled error rate, we showed that k-mer-based distance metrics were well correlated to the taxonomic distance metric for quantitative Beta-diversity metrics, but the correlation was low for presence/absence distances. The community complexity in terms of taxa richness and the sequencing depth significantly affected the quality of the k-mer-based distances, while the impact of low amounts of sequence contamination and sequencing error was limited. Finally, we benchmarked currently available de-novo comparative metagenomic tools and compared their output on two datasets of fecal metagenomes and showed that most k-mer-based tools were able to recapitulate the data structure observed using taxonomic approaches. Conclusion: This study expands our understanding of the strength and limitations of k-mer-based de novo comparative metagenomic approaches and aims to provide concrete guidelines for researchers interested in applying these approaches to their metagenomic datasets.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number27
JournalMicrobiome Research Reports
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2023


  • De-novo comparative metagenomics
  • k-mers
  • metagenomes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology


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