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Appl Environ Microbiol. Oct 2008; 74(20): 6452–6456.
Published online Aug 29, 2008. doi:  10.1128/AEM.01394-08
PMCID: PMC2570284

TRiFLe, a Program for In Silico Terminal Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism Analysis with User-Defined Sequence Sets [down-pointing small open triangle]


We describe TRiFLe, a freely accessible computer program that generates theoretical terminal restriction fragments (T-RFs) from any user-supplied sequence set tailored to a particular group of organisms, sequences from clone libraries, or sequences from specific genes. The program allows a rapid identification of the most polymorphic enzymes, creates a collection of T-RFs for the data set, and can potentially identify specific T-RFs in T-RF length polymorphism (T-RFLP) patterns by comparing theoretical and experimental results. TRiFLE was used for analyzing T-RFLP data generated for the amoA and pmoA genes. The peaks identified in the T-RFLP patterns show an overlap of ammonia- and methane-oxidizing bacteria in the metalimnion of a subtropical lake.

Terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism (T-RFLP) is a widely used molecular technique for studying microbial community composition and diversity in environmental (1, 3, 8) and clinical (2, 11) samples. For T-RFLP, PCR products (amplicons) are obtained using primers labeled with a fluorescent dye. Amplicons are digested with restriction enzymes, and the fragments generated are separated by high-resolution electrophoresis (e.g., in a DNA sequencer). The resulting fingerprint of the microbial community is the set of the lengths of all labeled terminal restriction fragments (T-RFs). T-RFLP analysis has been successfully applied for different targets, including 16S rRNA genes and genes of enzymes involved in specific metabolic processes, such as nitrogen fixation, nitrification, denitrification, or mercury resistance (7).

Specialized software can support the design and interpretation of T-RFLP experiments at two levels: (i) digestions of reference sequences can be simulated in silico in order to find appropriate enzymes for experimental analysis, and (ii) experimental T-RFLP patterns can be associated to predicted T-RFs from sets of reference sequences in order to identify possible species in the sample. Programs available on the web, such as MICA (microbial community analysis), TAP T-RFLP from the Ribosomal Database Project, or TReFID (6, 9, 12), can be used to perform in silico digestion of 16S rRNA genes. More recently, a similar module was integrated in the phylogenetic software program ARB (10). Although programs such as ARB can handle user-defined sets of sequences from genes other than 16S rRNA genes, this requires additional steps, such as the integration and alignment of the sequences, before the simulation can be performed. To our knowledge, none of the programs available so far has been specifically designed to simulate and create T-RF data sets using arbitrary sets of DNA sequences prepared from specific targets (e.g., genes involved in any metabolic pathways) or from unpublished sequences.

An increasingly popular trend in T-RFLP analysis consists of the identification of species in the samples by associating T-RFs from experimental runs with predicted T-RFs from a set of existing sequences. However, since related organisms commonly produce T-RFs of the same length, this association can be ambiguous, requiring digestion with several enzymes to increase the confidence on the assignment (5). Therefore, automation in the comparison of more-complex sets of data can contribute to the analysis and interpretation of T-RFLP data.

In this work we present the software program TRiFLe, which generates theoretical T-RFs from arbitrary sets of sequences by simulating PCR amplification and digestion with restriction enzymes. The main advantage of TRiFLe is thus that the simulation can be tailored to any desired groups of organisms, sequences from clone libraries, or specific genes. The results of the simulation can be used to design T-RFLP experiments or to compare theoretical and experimental T-RFs. The identification function included in TRiFLe allows the comparison of experimental results from several independent digestions with theoretical T-RFs from a data set of sequences. The program was validated by analyzing the diversity of ammonia- and methane-oxidizing bacterial communities in the metalimnion of Lake Kinneret (Israel) using PCR amplification, T-RFLP, and cloning of the genes amoA and pmoA.

Description of TRiFLe.

TriFLe is a computer program written in Java and distributed as a Java Web Start application. This technology allows users to download and run the software by simply clicking on a link in a Web page and automatically handles updates. TRiFLe is available free of charge from the website at http://cegg.unige.ch/trifle/trifle.jnlp for the most common operating systems (Windows, Linux, and Mac OS). Its source code is distributed as open source software and includes a tutorial with examples for the application (http://cegg.unige.ch/trifle_docs).

Two different functionalities are implemented in the program. In the simulation function, the aim is to predict T-RFs from sequences, primers, and enzymes given by the user. In the identification function, the program compares results from T-RFLP experiments with a data set of T-RFs from a set of reference sequences and computes a score to predict the community composition of the sample.

The input for the simulation of T-RFs (Fig. (Fig.1)1) consists of the following: (i) a FastA file containing the data set sequences, (ii) the primer sequences (these are just typed in a text field; IUPAC ambiguity codes can be used to specify degenerate primers), (iii) the labeled primers (forward, reverse, or both), and (iv) the set of restriction enzymes. The program constructs a probabilistic model (weight matrix) from each primer and searches the reference sequences for matches of each model. The matrix is slid along the candidate sequence, and each position is scored according to the matrix. The score is expressed as a probability. If the probability is above a certain threshold, which can be set by the user (through a slider in the dialogs), the position is considered a match. Nucleotide mismatches in the candidate sequence will lower the probability score, so the threshold gives control over the number of allowed mismatches.

FIG. 1.
Input interface of TRiFLe for simulating T-RFs (A) and graphical display of the results from the simulation (B). The different parts of the displays are indicated.

Only sequences with matches of both primers (“amplicons”) under the stringency conditions selected by the user are retained and digested in silico with the specified enzymes. For each digested amplicon, the program generates a graphical representation of all the predicted T-RFs (Fig. (Fig.1B).1B). The results can also be displayed in other ways: as the set of all T-RFs generated by a particular enzyme or as a table containing the T-RFs from all the sequences in the data set. The results can be saved and loaded again and can be exported in TAB-separated format.

For the identification function, experimental profiles are compared with theoretical T-RF profiles generated from a set of sequences. The input data are as follows: (i) a FastA file containing the reference sequences, (ii) the primers, and (iii) a set of files from analyzed data of a T-RFLP experiment (run file), each containing experimentally measured T-RF lengths obtained with one enzyme using one labeled primer. For the run file, the program accepts any TAB-delimited table format and the user may define which of the columns correspond to the experimental fragment length, allowing run files with different formats to be analyzed. Considering that experimental lengths reported by a sequencer are known to be subject to errors (5, 7), the user can correct the experimental values using the correction formula of Kaplan and Kitts (5). Although this experimental correction was calculated for T-RFLP analysis using an ABI 310 genetic analyzer, it is so far the only experimental correction existing, and simulations with our data sets have shown good results when T-RFLP data from other systems have been corrected (data not shown).

For the identification of the T-RFs in the experimental samples, the program displays those T-RFs that were compared (simulated and experimental), as well as the distance (expressed in nucleotides). Additionally, considering that the experimental lengths of amplicons that do not contain an enzyme cut (unrestricted amplicons) are usually more biased (5), TRiFLe includes an option for setting a range of the fragments to be included in the calculation of the distance. Since different species may produce the same T-RF length with a particular enzyme and it is not possible to accurately quantify the contribution of each of them to the peak, a particular peak can be used in more than one identification. Therefore, having a larger set of enzymes can be expected to yield better identifications, since the overall distance is calculated from the combination of all the enzymes used.

Experimental validation of TRiFLe using known bacterial DNA.

To test the program, results given by TRiFLe were compared with experimental results from T-RFLP of the nitrogenase iron protein gene (nifH) from the diazotrophic bacterial strains Anabaena sp. strain PCC7210, Frankia sp., Bradyrhizobium japonicum USDA110, Rhizobium sp. strain NGR234, and Mesorhizobium loti MAFF303099. The nifH gene was amplified using the primers nifHF and nifHR (13) from genomic DNA. For the amplification, the primer nifHF was labeled with 5-carboxyfluorescein. The amplicons were digested overnight at 37°C with 5 U of the restriction enzymes HaeIII and MspI (New England Biolabs) and afterwards separated on an ABI 3100 automatic sequencer. The predicted and observed T-RFs differed generally by 1% of the size of the fragment (Table (Table1).1). However, this difference was greater for fragments smaller than 50 bp or larger than 450 bp. The deviation between the predicted and observed T-RFs was in agreement with previous experimental determinations for 16S rRNA genes and mrcA (7).

Predicted and measured T-RFs of nifH sequences in five diazotrophic strainsa

Experimental validation using unknown microbial communities.

TRiFLe's identification function was assayed using data generated from an environmental sample. A fragment of the genes coding for the alpha subunit of the particulate methane monooxygenase (pmoA) and ammonia monooxygenase (amoA) was amplified with the primer combination A189 and A682 (4) from DNA extracted from a water sample at the metalimnetic layer of Lake Kinneret (Israel), collected at station A (maximum depth, 42 m), which represents the pelagic area of the lake. The sample was filtered on 0.2-μm-pore-size filters (Supor-200; PALL Life Sciences) and stored at −18°C until DNA was extracted using the UltraClean soil DNA kit (MoBio), following the manufacturer's guidelines. For T-RFLP, the primer A189 was labeled with 5-carboxyfluorescein. Three independent PCRs were pooled, gel purified, quantified, and digested overnight at 37 or 65°C with 5 U of HaeIII, MspI, MboI, AluI, and TaqI (New England Biolabs). Digest fragments were separated on an ABI 3100 automated sequencer. Fragment sizes were estimated by comparison with the ROX-500 standard (Applied Biosystems). The runs were analyzed using the GeneScan 3.1 software program (Applied Biosystems), and the resulting T-RF sets (Fig. (Fig.2A)2A) were used for identification with TRiFLe.

FIG. 2.
Validation of the identification function of TRiFLe using experimental results from a T-RFLP experiment using a water sample at the metalimnetic layer of Lake Kinneret (Israel). (A) Electropherograms of the T-RFLP analysis of pmoA and amoA PCR products ...

Thirteen sequences from a clone library from the same environmental sample were included in the reference set to serve as a control set. The references also included pmoA and amoA sequences from cultured and uncultured methane- and ammonia-oxidizing bacteria reported in GenBank (Fig. (Fig.2B).2B). The expected result was for TRiFLe to report the control set at or near the top of the identification list. As expected, TRiFLe reported most clones (10 out of 13) within the top 20 identified species (Table (Table2,2, bold entries). The T-RFs from those clones corresponded to the two most prominent peaks in the electropherograms (Fig. (Fig.2A).2A). Several uncultured methanotrophic bacteria, Methylocystis sp. strain SC2, Nitrosospira sp. strain 39-19, and an uncultured ammonia-oxidizing bacterium were obtained in the top-20 list (Table (Table2).2). Those sequences were phylogenetically related to the clones in the control set (Fig. (Fig.2B).2B). These results suggest that ammonia- and methane-oxidizing bacteria are colocalized in the layer of the metalimnion.

Differences between observed amoA and pmoA T-RF sizes and those predicted using the identification function of TRiFLea


This research was supported by G.I.F. (German-Israel Foundation) grant no. I-711-83.8/2001 and BSF (Binational Science Foundation) grant no. 2002-206, and samples were taken during the German Israeli Minerva School in October 2004. We thank the Max Planck Society for financial support of P. Junier during this study.

We thank personnel of the Yigal Allon Kinneret Limnological Laboratory, Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research, for their assistance during the sampling. We thank Ok-Sun Kim for testing the program and Ilonka Jäger, Tobias Lenz, Marco Pagnini, Dario Diviani, and Carlo Rivolta for their valuable comments.


[down-pointing small open triangle]Published ahead of print on 29 August 2008.


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