Our understanding of microbial diversity is greatly hampered by the inability to culture as much as 99% of the microbial community in the biosphere. Development of methods for identification and determining microbial phylogenies based on gene sequences, and for recovering genes directly from diverse environmental samples has made it possible to study microbes without the need for cultivation. PCR techniques have revolutionized retrieval of conserved gene sequences. However, it is well known that co-amplification of homologous genes may generate chimeric sequences leading to descriptions of non-existent species. To quantify the frequency of chimeric sequences in PCR amplification of 16S rRNA genes, we chose several 16S rDNAs with known sequences and mixed them for PCR amplifications under various conditions. Using this model system, we detected 30% occurrence of chimeric sequences after 30 cycles of co-amplification of two nearly identical 16S rRNA genes. The frequency of chimera formation decreased to 12.9% and 14.7% for templates with 82% and 86% similarity, respectively. We also examined effects of the number of amplification cycles, length of elongation periods and presence of damaged DNA on chimera formation. The results should provide useful information for microbiologists who use PCR-based strategies to retrieve conserved genes from mixed genomes.


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