Rapid genetic analysis made possible by Carlsbad, CA-based Life Technologies’ new semiconductor sequencing technology strongly suggests that the cause of a deadly foodborne outbreak sweeping Europe is an aggressive mutant type of two pathogenic E. coli strains.
The illness has left 18 dead in Germany, where the outbreak is focused, and sickened thousands in nine European countries. The World Health Organization says preliminary genetic sequencing indicates the pathogen responsible is a hybrid never before seen. While E. coli is both common and prevalent, WHO food safety expert Hilde Kruse told the Associated Press that various characteristics of the new strain make it more virulent and toxin-producing.
Life Technologies acquired the rapid sequencing technology last August with its acquisition of Ion Torrent Systems. The company began shipping what it now calls the Ion PGM (Personal Genome Machine) in December to research scientists in North America, Europe, and Asia.
In a statement today, Life Technologies says German scientists using its DNA analyzer were able to discover within days that the pathogen had a unique combination of virulent traits from two different types of E. coli: enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) and enteroaggregative E. coli (EAEC). A shared characteristic of the enterohemorrhagic strain and the new hybrid bacterium is that both cause watery or bloody diarrhea. In severe cases, EHEC also attacks the blood, kidneys and brain, causing a life-threatening complication known as hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), according to Germany’s Spiegel Online.
Additional data gathered at Life Technologies’ laboratories in Darmstadt, Germany, will be used by scientists at the University Hospital Muenster, to develop better tests to positively identify the illness in people with early symptoms of infection. Additional work also could help scientists determine the specific traits that make this strain so aggressive.
“The severity of this outbreak meant that speed was of the essence,” said Life Technologies Simone Guenther, who conducted the sequencing, in a statement from the company. “We were able to provide the data in record time to University Hospital Muenster. In previous outbreaks it would have taken much longer to reach this stage.”
Once the sequencing data has been fully analyzed in the next few days, the medical technology company near San Diego plans to develop new customized kits specifically designed to detect the hybrid strain.