High-throughput DNA metabarcoding has gained recognition as a potentially powerful tool for biomonitoring, including early detection of aquatic invasive species (AIS). DNA based techniques are advancing, but our understanding of the limits to detection for metabarcoding complex samples is inadequate. For detecting AIS at an early stage of invasion when the species is rare, accuracy at low detection limits is key. To evaluate the utility of metabarcoding in future fish community monitoring programs, we conducted several experiments to determine the sensitivity and accuracy of routine metabarcoding methods. Experimental mixes used larval fish tissue from multiple "common" species spiked with varying proportions of tissue from an additional "rare" species. Pyrosequencing of genetic marker, COI (cytochrome c oxidase subunit I) and subsequent sequence data analysis provided experimental evidence of low-level detection of the target "rare" species at biomass percentages as low as 0.02% of total sample biomass. Limits to detection varied interspecifically and were susceptible to amplification bias. Moreover, results showed some data processing methods can skew sequence-based biodiversity measurements from corresponding relative biomass abundances and increase false absences. We suggest caution in interpreting presence/absence and relative abundance in larval fish assemblages until metabarcoding methods are optimized for accuracy and precision.
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© 2017 The Author(s).