Comparison of the performance of an amplicon sequencing assay based on Oxford Nanopore technology to real-time PCR assays for detecting bacterial biodefense pathogens

The state-of-the-art in nucleic acid based biodetection continues to be polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and many real-time PCR assays targeting biodefense pathogens for biosurveillance are in widespread use. These assays are predominantly singleplex; i.e. one assay tests for the presence of one target, found in a single organism, one sample at a time.

Due to the intrinsic limitations of such tests, there exists a critical need for high-throughput multiplex assays to reduce the time and cost incurred when screening multiple targets, in multiple pathogens, and in multiple samples. Such assays allow users to make an actionable call while maximizing the utility of the small volumes of test samples. Unfortunately, current multiplex real-time PCR assays are limited in the number of targets that can be probed simultaneously due to the availability of fluorescence channels in real-time PCR instruments.

To address this gap, we developed a pipeline in which the amplicons produced by a 14-plex end-point PCR assay using spiked samples were subsequently sequenced using Nanopore technology. We used bar codes to sequence multiple samples simultaneously, leading to the generation and subsequent analysis of sequence data resulting from a short sequencing run time (< 10 min). We compared the limits of detection (LoD) of real-time PCR assays to Oxford Nanopore Technologies (ONT)-based amplicon sequencing and estimated the sample-to-answer time needed for this approach.

Overall, LoDs determined from the first 10 min of sequencing data were at least one to two orders of magnitude lower than real-time PCR. Given enough time, the amplicon sequencing approach is approximately 100 times more sensitive than real-time PCR, with detection of amplicon specific reads even at the lowest tested spiking concentration (around 2.5–50 Colony Forming Units (CFU)/ml).

Based on these results, we propose amplicon sequencing assay as a viable alternative to replace the current real-time PCR based singleplex assays for higher throughput biodefense applications. We note, however, that targeted amplicon specific reads were not detectable even at the highest tested spike concentrations (2.5 X 104–5.0 X105 CFU/ml) without an initial amplification step, indicating that PCR is still necessary when utilizing this protocol.

Authors: Robert Player, Kathleen Verratti, Andrea Staab, Christopher Bradburne, Sarah Grady, Bruce Goodwin, Shanmuga Sozhamannan