Genome-wide SNP detection in the great tit Parus major using high throughput sequencing


  • This paper is part of an ongoing project on SNP discovery to map QTLs for timing of breeding and personality in great tits. Nikkie van Bers is a postdoctoral fellow working on this project. Knees van Oers is at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology and its interested in the evolutionary genetics of animal personality. Hindrik Kerstens is a PhD at Animal Breeding and Genomics Centre, Wageningen University and has a strong interest in bioinformatics. Bert Dibbits is technical assistant in molecular biology at Animal Breeding and Genomics Centre, Wageningen University. Richard Crooijmans is assistant professor at Animal Breeding and Genomics Centre, Wageningen University, Dand is interested in genome research of farm animals. Marcel Visser is professor at the Department of Animal Ecology at the Netherlands institute of Ecology and is interested in great tit lay date plasticity and its micro-evolution in response to climate change. Martien Groenen is Professor in Animal Genomics at Animal Breeding and Genomics Centre, Wageningen University, Project and has a broad interest in comparative and population genomics of animals.

Kees van Oers, Fax: 31 26 4723227; E-mail:


Identifying genes that underlie ecological traits will open exiting possibilities to study gene–environment interactions in shaping phenotypes and in measuring natural selection on genes. Evolutionary ecology has been pursuing these objectives for decades, but they come into reach now that next generation sequencing technologies have dramatically lowered the costs to obtain the genomic sequence information that is currently lacking for most ecologically important species. Here we describe how we generated over 2 billion basepairs of novel sequence information for an ecological model species, the great tit Parus major. We used over 16 million short sequence reads for the de novo assembly of a reference sequence consisting of 550 000 contigs, covering 2.5% of the genome of the great tit. This reference sequence was used as the scaffold for mapping of the sequence reads, which allowed for the detection of over 20 000 novel single nucleotide polymorphisms. Contigs harbouring 4272 of the single nucleotide polymorphisms could be mapped to a unique location on the recently sequenced zebra finch genome. Of all the great tit contigs, significantly more were mapped to the microchromosomes than to the intermediate and the macrochromosomes of the zebra finch, indicating a higher overall level of sequence conservation on the microchromosomes than on the other types of chromosomes. The large number of great tit contigs that can be aligned to the zebra finch genome shows that this genome provides a valuable framework for large scale genetics, e.g. QTL mapping or whole genome association studies, in passerines.


Genetic variation underlying phenotypic differences between individuals, either of the same or of different species, has been demonstrated in many, often long-term, studies throughout the world (Garant & Kruuk 2005; Nussey et al. 2005; Postma & Van Noordwijk 2005; Charmantier et al. 2008). Understanding this genetic variation is essential to estimate the rate at which species can adapt to their changing environment, due to e.g. global climate change (Visser 2008), and whether this rate of adaptation is sufficient to prevent species extinction (Both et al. 2006). Passeriformes are likely to be the most widely studied vertebrate taxonomic order in ecology and evolution (Lack 1968; Bennett & Owens 2002). The ease with which passerines can be studied in the wild, in particular by marking individuals and following them through time, has resulted in many, often long-term, research programmes on a wide diversity of passerine species. Hence, extensive knowledge has been gathered by researchers investigating natural selection, sexual selection, behavioural ecology and speciation. In addition, reviews on quantitative genetic analysis in natural populations make it clear that also many of the long-term studies of marked individuals have been conducted in passerines (Merilä & Sheldon 2001; Kruuk 2004). Linking quantitative genetic variation in life-history traits to polymorphisms in the actual genes that code for this variance is essential for our understanding of the causes and consequences of trait diversity. Quantitative genetic techniques such as the ‘animal model’ (Kruuk 2004) and QTL analyses conducted in specially created mapping crosses (Slate 2005) have undoubtedly enhanced our understanding of adaptation, reproductive isolation and speciation.

In order to perform QTL-mapping studies in a natural population, several requirements need to be met: (i) the population should be sufficiently large and pedigree information needs to be available; (ii) the traits of interest should have been determined quantitatively; and (iii) the availability of a genetic map, consisting of polymorphic markers (Kruuk 2004; Slate 2005). For many non-model wild species, advances have been hampered by the lack of pedigree information as well as the lack of sufficient numbers of markers to be able to construct genetic maps. Over the past two decades, personality traits and timing of reproduction have been determined quantitatively for pedigreed populations of the great tit (Parus major). These traits affect important ecological processes such as reproduction, survival and dispersal and as a result have important consequences for the fitness of an individual (for a review see e.g. Van Oers et al. 2005). However, a genetic map is not yet available for this ecological model species and the number of publicly available polymorphic markers, e.g. microsatellites, amplified fragment length polymorphisms (AFLPs) and single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), is very limited. At the time of writing, the NCBI database only contains 23 microsatellite sequences for P. major, and no SNP (but see Fidler et al. 2007) or AFLP markers ( Microsatellites have been the markers of choice for the construction of the majority of linkage maps of natural populations of vertebrates (Slate et al. 2002; Hansson et al. 2005; Beraldi et al. 2006). However, SNPs have several advantages that favour their use as markers for gene mapping [reviewed by Vignal et al. (2002) and Slate et al. (2009)]. SNP genotyping is highly automated: over 10 000 SNPs can be typed simultaneously using a single custom made chip (Illumina). Additionally, SNPs are more abundant in the genome, and their discovery is more time efficient.

The development of novel sequencing platforms, like Roche/454 Life Sciences’ Genome Sequencer and Illumina’s Genome Analyzer, have dramatically lowered the costs for generating vast amounts of sequence data. For example, Illumina’s Genome Analyzer produces in a single sequence run of a couple of days several giga-basepairs (Gbp) of sequence data, in short sequence reads. These short sequences form an excellent resource for the detection of SNPs (Hillier et al. 2008; Van Tassell et al. 2008), however, for genotyping assays, sufficient sequence flanking the SNP needs to be available to allow for probe design. For species with a (partially) sequenced genome, this information can relatively easily be retrieved by mapping the reads onto the (draft) genome (Van Tassell et al. 2008; Matukumalli et al. 2009; Ramos et al. 2009). Although for many species the lack of a sequenced reference genome presents a serious drawback, the de novo assembly of the short sequence reads into contigs providing the sequence context of a SNP is an efficient approach to overcome this problem (Kerstens et al. 2009). To allow for contig assembly and reliable SNP detection, the number of sequences covering a genomic region needs to be sufficiently large. Reducing the complexity of the dataset, which corresponds to the portion of the genome covered, is a straightforward strategy to reach sufficient sequence depth at reasonable costs. Reduced representation libraries (RRLs) generally represent 1–5% of the genome and are created by the size selection of fragments in a limited size range, produced by enzymatic digestion of the DNA (Altshuler et al. 2000). RRLs have successfully been employed for the discovery of thousands of SNPs in species for which a genome sequence is available, such as humans (Altshuler et al. 2000), bovines (Van Tassell et al. 2008) and pigs (Wiedmann et al. 2008; Ramos et al. 2009). Recently, an RRL was used for highly efficient SNP detection in turkey (Kerstens et al. 2009), a species for which a reference genome is currently still lacking.

Here, we describe the discovery of 20 000 novel SNPs in the genome of an ecological model species currently lacking a sequenced genome. By using the combination of RRLs and next generation sequencing we generated over 2 billion nucleotides of novel sequence information for this species. For SNP detection, we assembled this information into reference sequences for mapping of the reads. The reference sequences and the SNPs were mapped onto the recently sequenced zebra finch Taeniopygia guttata genome, thereby investigating the possibilities of using this passerine genome in future genetic studies of the great tit and other passerines.

Materials and methods

Library preparation and sequencing

Blood from ten wild caught hand-reared male great tits (Parus major) from ten different broods was used as the starting material for DNA isolation with the Puregene system (Gentra, USA). The birds originated from two different, but closely located (<10 km), populations in the Netherlands, respectively ‘Westerheide’ (five birds) and ‘de Hoge Veluwe’ (five birds). In order to reduce complexity, we generated two RRLs. A pool of 80 μg of DNA of these ten birds was digested with RsaI (160u, NEB, o/n at 37 °C) and dephosphorylated using 37.5 u CIAP (Fermentas) according to the manufacturers’ protocol. Dephosphorylation was performed because it may reduce preferential adapter ligation during library preparation which leads to an over-representation of sequence reads derived from the 5′ ends of the digested DNA fragments (Kerstens et al. 2009). The sample was size-fractionated on a 1% low melting point agarose gel (SeaPlaque). The size fractions of 3000–3500 bp (Gt3000) and 3500–4000 bp (Gt3500) were purified from the gel by treatment with β-agarase (NEB), and were purified by phenol/sevag treatment and precipitation. Gel Doc XR (BioRad) was used to estimate the fraction of the genome covered by the libraries. For library preparation the Genomic DNA Sample Prep Kit (Illumina) was used according to the manufacturers’ instructions, with the exception of phosphorylation of the sample. Randomly sheared, adapter ligated, fragments in the size-range of 170–250 bp were used as the starting material for sequencing on the Illumina 1G Genome Analyzer.

Data filtering and assembly of the reference sequence

For each of the RRLs (Gt3000 and Gt3500) we generated two datasets of sequence reads: dataset A was used for the assembly of the reference sequence and dataset M was used for mapping of the reads against the reference sequence. All sequence reads have been submitted to the Short Read Archive (SRA) with accession number SRA009913. As input for filtering, we used the GERALD files of the sequence reads. The filtering applied in order to obtain the two datasets was the same, with exception of the minimal quality score that we required for each individual nucleotide of sequence reads that were represented only once in the dataset. This value was at least 20 (which corresponds to an error probability of <1%) for a read in order to be retained in dataset A, and at least 10 (which corresponds to an error probability of <10%) for reads in order to be retained in dataset M.

Sequence reads that were likely to be derived from repetitive sequences in the genome were removed. These were reads containing either a stretch of more than 17 times (≥0.5 ×  read length of 36 nucleotides) the same base (poly-A, T, G or C), were overabundant (observed more than five times the expected sequence depth of 25) or were reads that were tagged by the program RepeatMasker (default settings) ( based on known repeats in the chicken genome. All the reads of dataset A were used for assembly using the program SSAKE (default parameters) (Warren et al. 2007). All the resulting sequences of 37 or more nucleotides are further referred to as contigs.

Mapping of the reads and SNP detection

All the reads of dataset M were used for mapping onto the reference sequence with the software package MAQ version 0.6.6, using the default settings (Li et al. 2008). In order to be classified as a SNP we required the following criteria to be met: (i) the minor allele needs to be observed at least three times to limit false SNP identification due to sequencing errors; (ii) the best mapping read has a mapping quality (Q) of at least 40; (iii) the consensus quality (C) is at least 30; and (iv) the SNP position is flanked at one side by at least 15 nucleotides.

Alignment to the zebra finch genome

All the contigs assembled from the short sequence reads were aligned against the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata) genome (version July 2008, assembly WUSTL v.3.2.4). These data were produced by the Genome Sequencing Center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and can be obtained from Because of its time efficiency, initial alignments were done using MegaBLAST (Zhang et al. 2000). We used the default parameters, except for: wordsize W = 16 and an identity in the aligned region (p) of at least 60%. To be considered as a hit, we required the alignment to include >80% of the length of the contig or of the sequence read. For the alignment of the initial sequence reads, an identity of at least 90% and a minimal bit score of 20 were required. Hits were classified as unique if there was only one hit for the corresponding sequence or if there was a hit on one chromosome and a hit with nearly (96%) the same bit score on chromosome unassigned. All contigs of at least 100 nucleotides that did not give a unique hit with MegaBLAST were re-aligned to the zebrafinch genome (version July 2008, assembly WUSTL v.3.2.4) using BlastZ (Schwartz et al. 2003). BlastZ is specifically designed for the alignment of sequences of dissimilar species and BlastZ alignments can overspan gaps of hundreds of nucleotides. However, this comes at a computational cost, which is the reason why the initial alignments were done with MegaBLAST. For the BlastZ alignments the default settings were used except for the option Y = 3400, which restricts the size of gaps to at most 100 bp.

Single Nucleotide Polymorphism* (SNP*), which is the number of SNPs corrected for the number of nucleotides mapping to each of the zebra finch chromosomes, is calculated as follows for each of the zebra finch autosomes: SNP* = ∑SNP/m, where m is the number of mapped nucleotides per 1000 basepairs of chromosome. SNP* and m were tested for significance by performing t-test.


We selected 66 SNPs located on 40 different contigs for validation by PCR amplification and sequencing (the primer and contig sequences are available as supplementary info online). Primers for contig amplification were designed using the web-based software Primer 3 v 0.4.0 (Rozen & Skaletsky 2000). The amplification was performed on DNA isolated from at least four of the individual birds used for the library preparation. Amplification products were used as the template for sequencing on a ABI 3730 DNA analyzer (Applied Biosystems), and sequencing results were analysed with the STADEN package. Confirmed SNPs have been submitted to dbSNP with accession numbers: NCBI_ss161110015-NCBI_ss161110056.


Building a reference sequence

For reliable SNP prediction, the putative SNP position needs to be covered by a sufficient number of sequence reads (Van Tassell et al. 2008). To reach a sequence depth of about 25, we reduced the complexity of our dataset by only sequencing a few percent of the great tit’s genome. This was accomplished by generating RRLs (Van Tassell et al. 2008). DNA was digested with the restriction enzyme RsaI and after separation of the DNA fragments on an agarose gel, the size fractions of 3000–3500 bp and of 3500–4000 bp were isolated. These two fractions represent an estimated ∼4.1% and ∼3.3% of the great tit genome assuming a genome size of ∼1.2 × 10bp, similar to the genome size of the zebra finch Taeniopygia guttata. The libraries are further referred to as Gt3000 and Gt3500, respectively.

In total, 61 million short sequence reads (36 bp) were generated, 32 million of Gt3000 and 29 million of Gt3500 (Fig. 1). This corresponds to around 1 billion nucleotides of data for each of the libraries. Sequencing errors in the reads can lead to the abortion of contig extension and as a result, shorter contigs. Therefore, we only selected those reads for the assembly of which all the bases were called with an error probability of <1%, unless the exact sequence of the read was found more than once. Additionally, we used the RepeatMasker program to remove reads that are likely to be derived from repetitive sequences in the genome, which corresponded to about 70 000 reads for each of the libraries. Repetitive sequences are more likely to match ambiguously during the assembly. This will result in incorrectly assembled contigs or in shorter contigs due to premature termination of the assembly (Warren et al. 2007). In addition to the RepeatMasker program we used an abundancy filter to limit the number of repetitive sequences in the dataset. After the filtering steps, we retained 9.4 million (29%) of the reads of Gt3000 and 7.0 million (24%) of the reads of Gt3500 for contig assembly (Fig. 1).

Figure 1.

 Schematic overview of the SNP detection pipeline. Two RRLs, gt3000 and gt3500, were used for the generation of in total 61 million short sequence reads. These reads were filtered with two different filter settings: a base call quality score of at least 20 was required for all uniquely represented reads that were used for the assembly of the contigs. These contigs form the framework for the mapping of all the reads with a base call quality score of at least 10 (in grey). Single nucleotide polymorphisms (*) are detected between reads that map to the same position on the reference sequences.

In the absence of a sequenced genome of the great tit we build an in silico set of sequences that served as reference for the subsequent detection of SNPs. Additionally, it provides the SNP sequence context necessary for the design of probes for use in genotyping (Fig. 1). The filtered reads were assembled using the assembly software SSAKE, which is specifically designed for the assembly of short sequence reads (Warren et al. 2007). The resulting reference sequence consisted of over 250 000 contigs for each of the RRLs, with a total length of 16.2 and 14.8 million nucleotides for Gt3000 and Gt3500, respectively (Table 1). The assembly of the Gt3000 reads has a N50 value of 53, and the assembly of the Gt3500 has a N50 of 52. The N50 length of an assembly is the length x such that 50% of the genome, or, in this case, reference sequence, is contained in segments of length x or greater (Adams et al. 2003).

Table 1.   Assembly statistics
Contig sizeGt3000Gt3500
37–49154 228143 588
50–75112 04697 396
76–10019 83017 649
Total number297 563267 927
Total length16.2 × 10614.8 × 106

Validation of the reference sequence by alignment to the zebra finch genome

For the validation of our assembly we used two different strategies. The first was alignment of the assembled contigs against the genome of a closely related species, the zebra finch [divergence time great tit-zebra finch is 40–45 million years (Barker et al. 2004)], and the second was the independent amplification of a subset of the assembled contigs. For alignment against the recently sequenced zebra finch genome we used the programs MegaBLAST and BlastZ. Of the initial short sequence reads, we could align 26% (Gt3000) and 32% (Gt3500) against the zebra finch genome. Subsequent assembly increased this percentage to 35% and 37%, respectively, for contigs smaller than 100 nucleotides. Of the contigs larger than 100 nucleotides, we could map in total 62% (Gt3000) and 63% (Gt3500) to the zebra finch genome (Table 2). A graphical representation of the distribution of the contigs over the zebra finch genome is provided as supplementary data. For validation by re-amplification, we selected 40 contigs, ranging in size from 200 to 500 bp. Of the selected contigs 35 mapped uniquely to locations distributed over the whole zebra finch genome, while five contigs could not be mapped. For 85% of the contigs a product of the expected size was amplified (supplementary information is available online).

Table 2.   Alignment against the zebra finch genome
 Unique hitTwo hitsMore than two hitsTotal
Gt3000All sequence readsMegaBLAST18.7% (1 759 890)3.7% (344 609)3.8% (354 478)26.2%
Contigs < 100 nucleotidesMegaBLAST27.9% (79 634)4.8% (13 676)2.6% (7356)35.3%
Contigs ≥ 100 nucleotidesMegaBLAST35.2% (4174)4.6% (546)2.9% (344)42.7%
BlastZ15.6% (1850)2.4% (290)1.0% (116)19.0%
Total (MegaBLAST&BlastZ)50.7% (6024)7.0% (836)3.9% (460)61.7%
Gt3500All sequence readsMegaBLAST22.4% (1575856)4.5% (313116)5.8% (410 444)32.7%
Contigs < 100 nucleotidesMegaBLAST28.2% (72 879)4.7% (12 227)4.4% (11 467)37.3%
Contigs ≥ 100 nucleotidestMegaBLAST28.0% (2695)4.0% (389)8.5% (818)40.5%
BlastZ17.4% (1676)3.1% (300)1.5% (140)22.0%
Total (MegaBLAST&BlastZ)45.4% (4371)7.2% (689)10.0% (958)62.5%

Mapping distribution over the different chromosome types

Avian chromosomes are highly variable in size, which led to their classification into micro- (<20 Mb), intermediate- (20–40 Mb) and macrochromosomes (∼50–200 Mb) (ICGSC 2004, Axelsson et al. 2005). Based on the convention of the ICGSC (ICGSC 2004), the zebra finch chromosomes covered by the genome assembly can be classified into six macrochromosomes (Tgu1A and Tgu1–5), eight intermediate chromosomes (Tgu4A and Tgu6–12) and 17 microchromosomes (Tgu1B and Tgu13–28). Because our dataset is expected to randomly cover the whole great tit genome, it allows a comparison of sequence conservation between the great tit and the zebra finch on the different chromosome types (Table 3). The results show that significantly more nucleotides map to microchromosomes than to intermediate (< 10−4) or macrochromosomes (< 10−6), and that the number of great tit nucleotides mapping to intermediate chromosomes is significantly higher than the number mapping to macrochromosomes (< 10−3).

Table 3.   Mapping statistics
 Mapped number nucleotides/kbpSNP*
Macrochromosomes (Tgu1A&Tgu1–5)4.62 ± 1.1346.6 ± 17.4
Intermediate chromosomes (Tgu6–12)10.24 ± 2.3111.3 ± 3.1
Microchromosomes (Tgu13–28&Tgu1B)21.00 ± 5.504.4 ± 3.0

Large scale SNP identification

To identify SNPs within the DNA pool used for the construction of the RRLs, we mapped 21 million (Gt3000) and 15 million (Gt3500) reads, respectively onto the reference sequences. These are all the reads containing only bases with a probability of >90% of being called correctly (Fig. 1). Nucleotide differences were marked as SNPs if the difference at that position in the reference sequence was observed at least three times, with a minimal mapping quality of 10 for all of the reads and a minimal mapping quality of 40 for the best mapping read. Using these thresholds, we detected 13 153 SNPs in Gt3000 and 7556 SNPs in Gt3500. 89% of the SNPs was flanked by at least 30 nucleotides on one side and two nucleotides on the other (Fig. 2), which is sufficient to allow probe design for an iSelect (Illumina) genotyping assay. The allele frequencies of the SNPs can be estimated based on the proportion of sequence reads harbouring the minor allele. A plot of the estimated allele frequencies of the SNPs in our dataset (Fig. 3) shows that SNPs with a minor allele frequency (MAF) of <0.2 are under-represented in our dataset, as compared to the allele frequency distribution reported for human SNPs (The International HapMap Consortium 2005).

Figure 2.

 The distribution of the number of nucleotides flanking the SNP positions on one side (side 1), which are flanked at the other side (side 2) by at least two nucleotides (straight line), 15 nucleotides (dashed line) or 30 nucleotides (dot-dash line).

Figure 3.

 The allele frequency distribution (bin size 0.05) of the total SNP dataset.

Sequencing errors are often found in the last nucleotides of the sequence reads (Dohm et al. 2008). If a substantial amount of the SNPs in the dataset is the result of sequencing errors, than an increase in the number of SNPs towards the end of the reads is expected. As a first indication for the validity of our SNP detection approach, we plotted the distribution of the SNPs over the 36 positions in the sequence reads (Fig. 4). Except for an under-representation at the termini of the reads (positions 1 and 36), the SNPs are equally distributed over the reads. Additionally, we calculated the transition:transversion ratio of the SNPs in our dataset. If polymorphisms would be introduced at random, a transition (A↔G or C↔T) to transversion (A or G ↔ C or T) rate of 1:2 is expected. The observed transition:transversion ratio for our dataset is 1.7:1.

Figure 4.

 The number of SNPs detected on each of the 36 positions of the sequence reads of (a) gt3000 and (b) gt3500.

In order to confirm the validity of our approach, we sequenced 40 different contigs, containing in total 66 SNPs. Due to technical limitations (e.g. no amplification product), 16 SNPs could not be typed. Of the remaining SNPs, the presence of 84% could be confirmed by sequencing of amplification products of the individual birds used for the construction of the dataset (supplementary information is available online).

For future use in the build of a genetic map of the great tit it is essential that the SNPs are widely distributed over the genome. In the absence of the sequence of the great tit genome, we used the genome of the zebra finch for the mapping of the contigs (see above, and Table 2). We plotted the distribution of the SNPs found in the two RRLs over the zebra finch chromosomes (Fig. 5). A total of 4272 SNPs were located on contigs that could be mapped to unique locations evenly distributed over the zebra finch genome. Of these, 2660 SNPs were located on contigs smaller than 100 bp, and 1609 SNPs were located on contigs of at least 100 bp.

Figure 5.

 Mapping of the SNPs onto the zebra finch genome. Each graph corresponds to an individual chromosome. The number of SNPs is plotted over intervals of 50 000 basepairs.

A comparison of the chicken and turkey genome revealed that nucleotide divergence between these bird species is higher on microchromosomes than on macrochromosomes (Axelsson et al. 2005). To investigate whether the same holds true for the great tit, we calculated the mean number of SNP harbouring contigs that mapped to each of the different chromosome types of the zebra finch (SNP*, see ‘Methods’). To avoid a bias introduced due to the significant difference in number of nucleotides mapping to each of the chromosome types (see above), we corrected for the number of nucleotides that mapped to each chromosome. SNP* decreases with the size of the chromosomes and is significantly higher for macrochromosomes than for intermediate (< 10−5) and for microchromosomes (< 10−8), and is also significantly higher for intermediate chromosomes than for microchromosomes (< 10−4).


Here we report the discovery of over 20 000 novel SNPs in the great tit genome by high throughput sequencing. We assembled 16 million short sequence reads, derived from two RRLs, into a total of over 550 000 contigs. These contigs have a total length of more than 30 million basepairs, which corresponds to about 2.5% of the great tit genome. Linking SNPs to positions on the genome is problematic for species for which a genome sequence is currently lacking. This can partially be circumvented by mapping the sequence reads onto the genome of a related species, e.g. the sequenced chicken genome in the case of turkey (Kerstens et al. 2009). Recently, the first passerine genome sequence; that of the zebra finch, was released. The great tit and the zebra finch diverged from their common ancestor 40–45 million years ago (Mya) (Barker et al. 2004). Furthermore, the avian karyotype is highly conserved (Shetty et al. 1999; Van Tuinen & Hedges 2001; Derjusheva et al. 2004) and avian genomes appear to have undergone relatively few chromosomal rearrangements (Griffin et al. 2008; Stapley et al. 2008). Therefore, the availability of the zebra finch genome sequence is likely to boost molecular research on ecologically relevant quantitative traits in other passerines. We were able to map over 60% of the contigs larger than 100 nucleotides onto the genome of the zebra finch. In a similar alignment of turkey contigs against the chicken genome (divergence time 25–30 Mya), 67% of the contigs could be mapped (Kerstens et al. 2009). For the turkey, the number of SNPs was increased by 50% by comparative assembly using the chicken genome and by including publicly available BAC-end sequences. In comparative assembly, contigs that are overlapping or immediately adjacent to each other are merged into larger contigs. In analogy to the turkey study, the use of the zebra finch genome as a framework for comparative assembly of the great tit contigs is likely to multiply the number of SNPs detected, and to increase the number of SNPs with sufficient flanking sequence for use in a genotyping assay.

Sequencing errors, which are mainly found in the last nucleotide positions of the sequence reads (Dohm et al. 2008), can falsely be identified as SNPs. The fact that we did not observe a bias in the number of SNPs in the last nucleotides of the reads supports our approach. Furthermore, the SNPs in our dataset show a transition:transversion rate of 1.7:1, which is only slightly less than the ratio of 2:1 observed in neutrally evolving genes in humans (Zhang & Gerstein 2003) and the ratio of 2.2:1 calculated for chicken based on more than 3 million chicken SNPs present in dbSNP.

Single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) with an MAF < 0.2 are under-represented in our dataset. This is due to the combination of the stringent requirement of a minor allele count of at least three times, which we set to avoid false SNP discovery due to sequencing errors and the average sequence coverage of our dataset of 15 times (after quality filtering). Increasing the sequence depth of the dataset will also allow the detection of SNPs with a lower allele frequency. We validated our assembly and SNP detection by PCR amplification and sequencing of 40 contigs. Eighty-five per cent of the selected contigs was amplified successfully and of the 50 SNPs that could be typed, the presence of 84% was confirmed by sequencing.

The majority of the contigs that we assembled are small (<75 bp), which is reflected in the N50 values of 52 (Gt3000) and 53 (Gt3500), respectively. The total length of the contigs assembled was 16.2 Mbp for Gt3000 and 14.8Mbp for Gt3500. This means that our contigs represent at most 1.3% and 1.2%, respectively of the great tit genome, which is considerably less than the 4.1% and 3.3% that we estimated to cover with these two RRLs. This is mainly due to the fact that not all sequence reads are assembled into contigs. However, in a similar study Kerstens et al. (2009) assembled 3% of the turkey genome, while the dataset was expected to cover 5–6% of the genome. Even though this is only 60% of the expected target, it is still more than the ∼35% of the target we retrieved in our assembly. An explanation for this is the difference in the proportion of larger sized contigs (>100 nucleotides) between the datasets, e.g. 7.2% of the turkey contigs is larger than 100 nucleotides vs. 3.9% (Gt3000) and 3.5% (Gt3500), respectively in our dataset. We attribute the lower proportion of contigs > 100 nucleotides to the higher level of diversity between the individuals used for the preparation of the datasets: six turkeys from two interbred lines vs. ten wild great tits from two different populations in the Netherlands. This difference in diversity is further reflected in the numbers of SNPs detected: using the same methods Kerstens and coworkers detected 207 SNPs/million base pairs of reference sequence, while we detected over 645 SNPs/million base pairs of reference sequence. Based on this, we expect that SNP detection can be optimized by using sequence reads derived from only one individual for the assembly of the reference sequence, and reads from a pool of highly diverse individuals for subsequent SNP detection.

Chicken micro- and intermediate chromosomes have a higher G + C content, a lower repeat density and a higher gene density than macrochromosomes (ICGSC 2004). We find that significantly more nucleotides of the great tit contigs map to zebra finch microchromosomes than to intermediate and to macrochromosomes, indicating that the overall level of sequence conservation between the great tit and the zebra finch is higher on microchromosomes than on the other types of chromosomes, which is probably the result of a higher gene density on the zebra finch microchromosomes. On the other hand, this observation could be due to a bias in our dataset, e.g. over-representation of sequences from smaller chromosomes or a better assembly of contigs derived from microchromosomes. However, we do not find a significant difference in the average length of contigs mapping to the different chromosome types (data not shown) and it is reported for Sanger sequencing that microchromosomal sequences tend to be under-represented rather than over-represented (ICGSC 2004). Chicken microchromosomes are estimated to account for 18% of the genome, while they harbour 31% of all chicken genes (ICGSC 2004). Macrochromosomes, on the other hand, generally have larger intergenic regions, which tend to be more variable. This is reflected in both the higher overall level of sequence conservation that we find for the microchromosomes and also in the observation that we find significantly less SNPs on microchromosomes than on intermediate- and macrochromosomes. This may seem contradictory to the higher rate of nucleotide divergence reported for chicken and turkey microchromosomes (ICGSC 2004; Axelsson et al. 2005), but these previous studies focused on the intronic and coding regions of the chromosomes, while our study also includes intergenic regions. Coding regions are under different evolutionary constraints and for future analysis of the nucleotide divergence on the different chromosome types of the great tit and the zebra finch it will be beneficial to separately focus on the coding regions as well.

Contigs harbouring 4272 (21%) of the SNPs could be mapped to a unique location on the zebra finch genome. This number is lower than expected based on the observation that 28–51% of the contigs result in a unique hit on the zebra finch genome. This observation that a relatively high number of SNPs are located on contigs that do not align to the zebra finch genome can partially be explained by regions that are highly conserved between the great tit and the zebra finch, which will result in a relatively high number of contigs that map, but will, due to selective constraint, harbour relatively less SNPs. Additionally, in regions that are not highly conserved, the presence of SNPs will hamper the alignment, further reducing the number of contigs with SNPs that map to the zebra finch genome. A further increase of the size of the reference genome sequence will also improve the alignment of great tit sequences to the zebra finch genome. This in turn will enhance the number of great tit SNPs that can be uniquely mapped onto the zebra finch genome, further facilitating the analysis of the molecular evolution of bird genomes. Recently, paired end sequencing was added to the possibilities of next generation sequencing. In this case, the sequence template is sequenced from both the 5′ and the 3′ end, resulting in two sequence reads with a spacing of known size. This, together with the increase in read length (currently 50–75 bp) will improve the length of the assembled sequence. As a result, the efficiency of SNP mapping and SNP detection will multiply, and also the fraction of SNPs with sufficient suitable sequence context to allow the design of a probe for use in genotyping assays will increase.

In conclusion, we showed that combining next generation sequencing with RRLs is an efficient strategy for the detection of thousands of SNPs in an ecological model species for which a sequenced genome is currently lacking. This approach can be further optimized by including paired end data, longer sequence reads and by comparative assembly to the zebra finch genome. We showed that the zebra finch genome can provide the framework to select several thousands of evenly distributed SNPs. In the near future, these SNPs will be used for the genotyping of a panel of individual great tits and the construction of a linkage map of the great tit. This map can provide further insight into the evolution of (bird) genomes, but, above all, this map will be essential in identifying genomic regions that explain phenotypic variation between individuals in loci associated with quantitative traits, e.g. behavioural and life history traits.


This project was financed by the Horizon program of the Netherlands Genomics Initiative. Supercomputer facilities were sponsored by the National Computing Facilities Foundation (NCF), grant number SH-088-2-08, with financial support from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, NWO. The authors would like to thank the Genome Sequencing Center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis for letting us use the zebra finch genome sequence data.

Conflicts of interest

The authors have no conflict of interest to declare and note that the sponsors of the issue had no role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.