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Detecting infectious disease threats in a changing climate
Climate change impacts our health as well as our landscape. Rising temperatures can threaten the quality of the air we breathe, as well as our food and water supplies. The increased incidence of extreme weather events such as hurricanes can raise the threat of water-borne illnesses by contaminating drinking water (through exposure to soil, sewage, and infected animals), promoting the growth of pathogens and the vectors that transmit them, and increasing the likelihood of skin exposure to contaminated water sources.
Leptospirosis is a disease caused by the Leptospira bacteria that can provoke kidney damage, meningitis, liver failure, respiratory distress, and even death. It infects humans through exposure to the urine of animals carrying these bacteria or environmental samples contaminated with urine of the infected animal. While leptospirosis has a worldwide distribution, it particularly affects countries with tropical and subtropical climates (Taniguchi and Póvoa 2019). It spreads easily during climate catastrophes, and extreme weather is a high-risk factor, as in the case of the leptospirosis outbreak in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Tracking down the culprit
Facing the current global climate change, a research group in Okinawa, Japan (Sato et al. 2019) sought to develop new tools to systematically detect Leptospira in order to prevent human infection. This group studied the bacterial ecosystem that allows the development of Leptospira during biofilm formation and investigated which animals are potential reservoirs for transmitting these pathogens to humans.
The researchers screened environmental water samples from a known endemic region in Japan for rRNA targets specific to Leptospira and animals living nearby. They performed multiplex PCR analysis with Takara Ex Taq HS DNA polymerase to detect bacteria using 16S rRNA targets, which they analyzed by NGS (on an Illumina MiSeq® platform). A similar procedure was carried out using PrimeSTAR HS DNA polymerase to detect 12S rRNA from vertebrate animals in the same environmental samples, in order to understand which vertebrate species are more likely to harbor Leptospira (Figure 1). The presence of certain animals, especially boars and eels, seemed to correlate with high levels of Leptospira, showing a potential link between pathogen and carrier. They were able to draw a correlation between the main bacteria (12 strains) that help propagate pathogenic Leptospira and the animals (10 species) that are the primary reservoirs of these bacteria. The multiplex PCR method used in the study is a powerful tool to help determine how Leptospira outbreaks can occur by showing how the environment can impact the development of this pathogen and revealing how it interacts with hosts/carriers. In addition to providing a better understanding of this phenomenon, these findings helped develop a system to better predict human infection risk.
Why our polymerases are the investigative tools of choice
This study highlights the use of Takara Ex Taq HS and PrimeSTAR HS DNA polymerases to detect bacteria in environmental water samples, which are typically difficult to work with due to the presence of PCR-inhibitory contaminants. It demonstrated the robustness of these two enzymes for performing DNA amplification with samples which pose such challenges. Since screening assays can help prevent health disasters provoked by weather crises, which are occurring with greater frequency and severity due to climate change, having reliable reagents to power those assays will be crucial for getting ahead of future outbreaks.
High Prevalence of Deadly Bacterial Disease Found in Puerto Rico. Yale School of Medicine. https://medicine.yale.edu/news-article/20887/
Leptospirosis | CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/leptospirosis/index.html
Miya, M. et al. MiFish, a set of universal PCR primers for metabarcoding environmental DNA from fishes: Detection of more than 230 subtropical marine species. R. Soc. Open Sci. 2, (2015).
Sato, Y. et al. Environmental DNA metabarcoding to detect pathogenic Leptospira and associated organisms in leptospirosis-endemic areas of Japan. Sci. Rep. 9, 1–11 (2019).
Taniguchi, L. U. & Póvoa, P. Leptospirosis: one of the forgotten diseases. Intensive Care Med. 45, 1,816–1,818 (2019).
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