In an effort to build a comprehensive genomic approach to food safety challenges, the FDA has implemented a whole genome sequencing effort, GenomeTrakr, which involves the sequencing and analysis of genomes of foodborne pathogens. As a part of this effort, we routinely sequence whole genomes of Listeria monocytogenes (Lm) isolates associated with human listeriosis outbreaks, as well as those isolated through other sources. To rapidly establish genetic relatedness of these genomes, we evaluated tetranucleotide frequency analysis via the JSpecies program to provide a cursory analysis of strain relatedness. The JSpecies tetranucleotide (tetra) analysis plots standardized (z-score) tetramer word frequencies of two strains against each other and uses linear regression analysis to determine similarity (r2). This tool was able to validate the close relationships between outbreak related strains from four different outbreaks. Included in this study was the analysis of Lm strains isolated during the recent caramel apple outbreak and stone fruit incident in 2014. We identified that many of the isolates from these two outbreaks shared a common 4b variant (4bV) serotype, also designated as IVb-v1, using a qPCR protocol developed in our laboratory. The 4bV serotype is characterized by the presence of a 6.3 Kb DNA segment normally found in serotype 1/2a, 3a, 1/2c and 3c strains but not in serotype 4b or 1/2b strains. We decided to compare these strains at a genomic level using the JSpecies Tetra tool. Specifically, we compared several 4bV and 4b isolates and identified a high level of similarity between the stone fruit and apple 4bV strains, but not the 4b strains co-identified in the caramel apple outbreak or other 4b or 4bV strains in our collection. This finding was further substantiated by a SNP-based analysis. Additionally, we were able to identify close relatedness between isolates from clinical cases from 1993-1994 and a single case from 2011 as well as links between two isolates from over 30 years ago. The identification of these potential links shows that JSpecies Tetra analysis can be a useful tool in rapidly assessing genetic relatedness of Lm isolates during outbreak investigations and for comparing historical isolates. Our analyses led to the identification of a highly related clonal group involved in two separate outbreaks, stone fruit and caramel apple, and suggests the possibility of a new genotype that may be better adapted for certain foods and/or environment.
Burall, L. S., Grim, C. J., Mammel, M. K., & Datta, A. R. (2016). Whole genome sequence analysis using jspecies tool establishes clonal relationships between listeria monocytogenes strains from epidemiologically unrelated listeriosis outbreaks. PLoS ONE, 11(3). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150797