Guest post – Sequence the sputum: using metagenomics to diagnose tuberculosis

Today, PeerJ is pleased to publish the work of Prof. Mark Pallen and his group, in which they describe a new DNA sequencing method to diagnose tuberculosis. Mark Pallen, Professor of Microbial Genomics and Head of the Microbiology and Infection Unit at the Warwick Medical School, wrote the following guest post, giving us some details concerning the study.

image“Laboratory diagnosis of tuberculosis (TB) using conventional approaches is a long drawn-out process, which takes weeks or months—plus, relying on laboratory culture means using techniques that date back to the 1880s!

In a report published today in the peer-reviewed journal PeerJ, we describe a new approach to the diagnosis of TB that relies on metagenomics—that is direct sequencing of DNA extracted from sputum—to detect and characterize the bacteria that cause TB without the need for time-consuming culture in the laboratory. Using the latest high-throughput sequencing technologies and some smart bioinformatics, we can now obtain sequences from the bacteria that cause TB in just a few days straight from clinical samples and gain insights into their genome sequences and the lineages they belong to, all without having to culture cells or capture or amplify DNA.

In this study, first-year PhD student Emma Doughty ( and bioinformatician Dr Martin Sergeant, both working at Warwick Medical School, have worked with African scientists Dr Martin Antonio and Dr Ifedayo Adetifaworking at the MRC Unit in The Gambia to develop and exploit novel sequencing and analytic approaches. They detected sequences from the TB bacteria in all eight sputum samples they investigated and were able to assign the bacteria to a known lineage in seven of the samples. Two samples were found to contain sequences from Mycobacterium africanum, a variety of the TB bacterium that is particular to West Africa.

This is part of a connected program of research in the Pallen group, where we have been using metagenomics to detect bacterial pathogens in contemporary and historical human material. Last year, we used metagenomics to obtain an outbreak strain genome from stool samples from an E. coli outbreak and to recover TB genomes from ~200-year-old Hungarian mummies. Earlier this year, we recovered the genome of Brucella melitensis, which causes an infection called brucellosis in livestock and humans, from a 700-year-old skeleton from Sardinia, Italy.

We now aim to work on a larger number of sputum samples, perhaps looking at a hundred consecutive samples in the fullness of time. But, before then, we need to spend a bit more time optimising our DNA extraction protocols. We were pleasantly surprised that the protocol we used worked “out of the box”, but we are confident that we can improve things so we get fewer human DNA sequences and more mycobacterial sequences from each sample. If we can increase coverage of the TB genomes, we may soon be able to detect mutations associated with drug-resistance directly from the sputum.

The final goal, shimmering on the horizon, is that we might one day be able to extract information from all the macromolecules in a sample (DNA, RNA, proteins) so that we get a read-out of what pathogens are there, what virulence or resistance genes are being expressed, what host responses are switched on and also maybe detect cancerous or pre-cancerous changes in the patient’s genome. This is probably going to rely on a new kind of approach: nanopore sequencing—to learn more about this, watch the recent Bioinformatics and Balti session on YouTube. The future is looking very exciting!

PS: We have been very impressed with the service offered by PeerJ, with just two weeks from submission to acceptance!”

Prof. Mark Pallen

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