Foodborne illness attributed to enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC), a highly pathogenic subset of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC), is increasingly recognized as a significant public health issue. Current microbiological methods for identification of EHEC in foods often use PCR-based approaches to screen enrichment broth cultures for characteristic gene markers [i.e., Shiga toxin (stx) and intimin (eae)]. However, false positives arise when complex food matrices, such as beef, contain mixtures of eae-negative STEC and eae-positive E. coli, but no EHEC with both markers in a single cell. To reduce false-positive detection of EHEC in food enrichment samples, a Multiplexed, Single Intact Cell droplet digital PCR (MuSIC ddPCR) assay capable of detecting the co-occurrence of the stx and eae genes in a single bacterial cell was developed. This method requires: (1) dispersal of intact bacteria into droplets; (2) release of genomic DNA (gDNA) by heat lysis; and (3) amplification and detection of genetic targets (stx and eae) using standard TaqMan chemistries with ddPCR. Performance of the method was tested with panels of EHEC and non-target E. coli. By determining the linkage (i.e., the proportion of droplets in which stx and eae targets were both amplified), samples containing EHEC (typically greater than 20% linkage) could be distinguished from samples containing mixtures of eae-negative STEC and eae-positive E. coli (0-2% linkage). The use of intact cells was necessary as this linkage was not observed with gDNA extracts. EHEC could be accurately identified in enrichment broth cultures containing excess amounts of background E. coli and in enrichment cultures derived from ground beef/pork and leafy-green produce samples. To our knowledge, this is the first report of dual-target detection in single bacterial cells using ddPCR. The application of MuSIC ddPCR to enrichment-culture screening would reduce false-positives, thereby improving the cost, speed, and accuracy of current methods for EHEC detection in foods.

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Keywords Droplet digital PCR, EHEC, Intimin, Quantitative PCR, Shiga toxin, STEC
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Journal Frontiers in Microbiology
McMahon, T.C. (Tanis C.), Blais, B.W. (Burton W.), Wong, A, & Carrillo, C.D. (Catherine D.). (2017). Multiplexed single intact cell droplet digital PCR (MuSIC ddPCR) method for specific detection of enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) in food enrichment cultures. Frontiers in Microbiology, 8(MAR). doi:10.3389/fmicb.2017.00332