Assessing strengths and weaknesses of DNA metabarcoding‐based macroinvertebrate identification for routine stream monitoring
DNA metabarcoding holds great promise for the assessment of macroinvertebrates in stream ecosystems. However, few large‐scale studies have compared the performance of DNA metabarcoding with that of routine morphological identification.
We performed metabarcoding using four primer sets on macroinvertebrate samples from 18 stream sites across Finland. The samples were collected in 2013 and identified based on morphology as part of a Finnish stream monitoring program. Specimens were morphologically classified, following standardised protocols, to the lowest taxonomic level for which identification was feasible in the routine national monitoring.
DNA metabarcoding identified more than twice the number of taxa than the morphology‐based protocol, and also yielded a higher taxonomic resolution. For each sample, we detected more taxa by metabarcoding than by the morphological method, and all four primer sets exhibited comparably good performance. Sequence read abundance and the number of specimens per taxon (a proxy for biomass) were significantly correlated in each sample, although the adjusted R2 values were low. With a few exceptions, the ecological status assessment metrics calculated from morphological and DNA metabarcoding datasets were similar. Given the recent reduction in sequencing costs, metabarcoding is currently approximately as expensive as morphology‐based identification.
Using samples obtained in the field, we demonstrated that DNA metabarcoding can achieve comparable assessment results to current protocols relying on morphological identification. Thus, metabarcoding represents a feasible and reliable method to identify macroinvertebrates in stream bioassessment, and offers powerful advantage over morphological identification in providing identification for taxonomic groups that are unfeasible to identify in routine protocols. To unlock the full potential of DNA metabarcoding for ecosystem assessment, however, it will be necessary to address key problems with current laboratory protocols and reference databases.