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Open Access Highly Accessed Methodology article

Universal and specific quantitative detection of botulinum neurotoxin genes

Brenna J Hill1, Janet C Skerry2, Theresa J Smith2, Stephen S Arnon3 and Daniel C Douek1*

Author affiliations

1 Human Immunology Section, Vaccine Research Center, National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892 USA

2 Integrated Toxicology Division, USAMRIID, Fort Detrick, MD 21702 USA

3 Infant Botulism Treatment and Prevention Program, California Department of Public Health, Richmond, CA 94804 USA

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Citation and License

BMC Microbiology 2010, 10:267  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-10-267

Published: 20 October 2010

Abstract

Background

Clostridium botulinum, an obligate anaerobic spore-forming bacterium, produces seven antigenic variants of botulinum toxin that are distinguished serologically and termed "serotypes". Botulinum toxin blocks the release of acetylcholine at neuromuscular junctions resulting in flaccid paralysis. The potential lethality of the disease warrants a fast and accurate means of diagnosing suspected instances of food contamination or human intoxication. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-accepted assay to detect and type botulinum neurotoxins (BoNTs) is the mouse protection bioassay. While specific and sensitive, this assay requires the use of laboratory animals, may take up to four days to achieve a diagnosis, and is unsuitable for high-throughput analysis. We report here a two-step PCR assay that identifies all toxin types, that achieves the specificity of the mouse bioassay while surpassing it in equivalent sensitivity, that has capability for high-throughput analysis, and that provides quantitative results within hours. The first step of our assay consists of a conventional PCR that detects the presence of C. botulinum regardless of the neurotoxin type. The second step uses quantitative PCR (qPCR) technology to determine the specific serotype of the neurotoxin.

Results

We assayed purified C. botulinum DNA and crude toxin preparations, as well as food and stool from healthy individuals spiked with purified BoNT DNA, and one stool sample from a case of infant botulism for the presence of the NTNH gene, which is part of the BoNT gene cluster, and for the presence of serotype-specific BoNT genes. The PCR surpassed the mouse bioassay both in specificity and sensitivity, detecting positive signals in BoNT preparations containing well below the 1 LD50 required for detection via the mouse bioassay. These results were type-specific and we were reliably able to quantify as few as 10 genomic copies.

Conclusions

While other studies have reported conventional or quantitative PCR-based assays for the detection of C. botulinum genes, our procedure's high-throughput capability and its portability allows most laboratories to quickly assess the possible presence of BoNTs either in food processing samples or in suspected cases of botulism. Thus, this assay provides rapid and specific detection of BoNT and toxin complex genes and would enable the targeting of appropriate therapeutics to infected individuals in a timely manner.