Alignment-Free Design of Highly Discriminatory Diagnostic Primer Sets for Escherichia coli O104:H4 Outbreak Strains

Martina Bielaszewska, Nicola J. Holden, Helge Karch, Leighton Pritchard, Ian K. Toth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Citations (Scopus)


An Escherichia coli O104:H4 outbreak in Germany in summer 2011 caused 53 deaths, over 4000 individual infections across Europe, and considerable economic, social and political impact. This outbreak was the first in a position to exploit rapid, benchtop high-throughput sequencing (HTS) technologies and crowdsourced data analysis early in its investigation, establishing a new paradigm for rapid response to disease threats. We describe a novel strategy for design of diagnostic PCR primers that exploited this rapid draft bacterial genome sequencing to distinguish between E. coli O104:H4 outbreak isolates and other pathogenic E. coli isolates, including the historical hæmolytic uræmic syndrome (HUSEC) E. coli HUSEC041 O104:H4 strain, which possesses the same serotype as the outbreak isolates.
Methodology/Principal Findings
Primers were designed using a novel alignment-free strategy against eleven draft whole genome assemblies of E. coli O104:H4 German outbreak isolates from the E. coli O104:H4 Genome Analysis Crowd-Sourcing Consortium website, and a negative sequence set containing 69 E. coli chromosome and plasmid sequences from public databases. Validation in vitro against 21 ‘positive’ E. coli O104:H4 outbreak and 32 ‘negative’ non-outbreak EHEC isolates indicated that individual primer sets exhibited 100% sensitivity for outbreak isolates, with false positive rates of between 9% and 22%. A minimal combination of two primers discriminated between outbreak and non-outbreak E. coli isolates with 100% sensitivity and 100% specificity.
Draft genomes of isolates of disease outbreak bacteria enable high throughput primer design and enhanced diagnostic performance in comparison to traditional molecular assays. Future outbreak investigations will be able to harness HTS rapidly to generate draft genome sequences and diagnostic primer sets, greatly facilitating epidemiology and clinical diagnostics. We expect that high throughput primer design strategies will enable faster, more precise responses to future disease outbreaks of bacterial origin, and help to mitigate their societal impact.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere34498
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number4
Publication statusPrint publication - 5 Apr 2012
Externally publishedYes


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