Scientists develop detection technique for live pathogens

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Research > Method relies on bacteria being dependent upon key nutrient

Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers have developed a technique for quick detection of live pathogens in the field. The advance could prove to be a game-changer in terms of being able to rapidly identify the source of food-borne illnesses such as E. coli. Identification of bacteria in a complex environment is currently scientifically challenging.

Current detection and diagnostic techniques are inadequate in major public health emergencies, such as outbreaks of food-borne illness. Finding the source of live pathogens in the suspected food supply requires days of laboratory culture.

LANL’s new method eliminates the need for laboratory culture and speeds the process. The technique relies on bacteria being critically dependent upon the key nutrient iron. The bacteria synthesize and release sequestering agents, called siderophores, into their environment to bind iron tightly for subsequent uptake. This process occurs only in live, intact bacteria.

The LANL team created a method to use bacterial siderophores for selective, rapid identification of viable bacteria in their surroundings.

Bacteria secrete siderophores to sequester and incorporate the iron they need. The scientists used bacterial siderophores to identify bacteria selectively and rapidly in complex matrices and to discriminate viable bacteria from their dead counterparts.

The research team developed surface chemistry strategies to tether siderophores to glass slides. Surface functionalization chemistry, which was developed at LANL for self-assembled monolayers, tethers siderophores and minimizes non-specific interactions associated with complex biological samples, such as culture filtrate, serum and urine. The tethered siderophores captured viable bacteria from a mixture of viable and dead Escherichia coli.

The team also used a software analysis tool that was originally developed for satellite imaging to conduct quantitative measurement of fluorescence staining in biological specimens. This tool enables accurate and fast quantitation of the data.

Rapid and selective determination of bacterial viability is critical for food safety. This analytical technique has applications for other situations, such as the rapid determination of the efficiency of a decontamination process, efficacy assessment after initial medical intervention to infection, and detection of exposure to a biological threat agent. The siderophore approach could be universally applicable to all bacteria, making it useful for detection in complex backgrounds.

The team includes Rama Sakamuri, Aaron Anderson, and Harshini Mukundan of Physical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy; Lakshman Prasad of Space Data Systems; Jurgen Schmidt of Biosecurity and Public Health, and former Laboratory employee Mark Wolfenden. Laboratory Directed Research and Development funded the work, which supports the Lab’s Global Security mission area and the Science of Signatures science pillar. The journal Advances in Biological Chemistry published the research.