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PLoS One. 2013 Apr 12;8(4):e61732. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0061732. Print 2013.

A duplex PCR-based assay for measuring the amount of bacterial contamination in a nucleic acid extract from a culture of free-living protists.

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  • 1Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom.



Cultures of heterotrophic protists often require co-culturing with bacteria to act as a source of nutrition. Such cultures will contain varying levels of intrinsic bacterial contamination that can interfere with molecular research and cause problems with the collection of sufficient material for sequencing. Measuring the levels of bacterial contamination for the purposes of molecular biology research is non-trivial, and can be complicated by the presence of a diverse bacterial flora, or by differences in the relative nucleic acid yield per bacterial or eukaryotic cell.


Here we describe a duplex PCR-based assay that can be used to measure the levels of contamination from marine bacteria in a culture of loricate choanoflagellates. By comparison to a standard culture of known target sequence content, the assay can be used to quantify the relative proportions of bacterial and choanoflagellate material in DNA or RNA samples extracted from a culture. We apply the assay to compare methods of purifying choanoflagellate cultures prior to DNA extraction, to determine their effectiveness in reducing bacterial contamination. Together with measurements of the total nucleic acid concentration, the assay can then be used as the basis for determining the absolute amounts of choanoflagellate DNA or RNA present in a sample.


The assay protocol we describe here is a simple and relatively inexpensive method of measuring contamination levels in nucleic acid samples. This provides a new way to establish quantification and purification protocols for molecular biology and genomics in novel heterotrophic protist species. Guidelines are provided to develop a similar protocol for use with any protistan culture. This assay method is recommended where qPCR equipment is unavailable, where qPCR is not viable because of the nature of the bacterial contamination or starting material, or where prior sequence information is insufficient to develop qPCR protocols.

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