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Symp Ser Soc Appl Microbiol. 2000;(29):133S-143S.

Methods for the detection and isolation of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli.

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Inspectorate for Health Protection, Zutphen, The Netherlands.


Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) are an important cause of haemorrhagic colitis and the diarrhoea-associated form of the haemolytic uraemic syndrome. Of the numerous serotypes of E. coli that have been shown to produce Shiga toxin (Stx), E. coli O157:H7 and E. coli O157:NM (non-motile) are most frequently implicated in human disease. Early recognition of STEC infections is critical for effective treatment of patients. Furthermore, rapid microbiological diagnosis of individual patients enables the prompt notification of outbreaks and implementation of control measures to prevent more cases. Most human infections caused by STEC have been acquired by the consumption of contaminated foods, especially those of bovine origin such as undercooked ground beef and unpasteurized cows' milk, and by person-to-person contacts. To identify the reservoirs of STEC and the routes of transmission to man, sensitive methods are needed as these pathogens may only be present in food, environmental and faecal samples in small numbers. In addition, sensitive and rapid detection methods are necessary for the food industry to ensure a safe supply of foods. Sensitive methods are also needed for surveillance programmes in risk assessment studies, and for studies on survival and growth of STEC strains. Cultural methods for the enrichment, isolation and confirmation of O157 STEC are still evolving. Several selective enrichment media have been described, of which modified tryptone soy broth with novobiocin and modified E. coli broth with novobiocin, seem to be the most appropriate. These media are minimally-selective broths that give a somewhat limited differential specificity favouring isolation of O157 STEC, as opposed to other Gram-negative bacteria, in the sample. An incubation temperature of 41-42 degrees C further enhances selectivity. The occurrence of heat-, freeze-, acid- or salt-stressed STEC in foods means that it is important to be able to detect cells that are in a stressed state, as STEC generally have a very low infectious dose, and injured cells mostly retain their pathogenic properties. For the isolation of stressed O157 STEC, pre-enrichment in a non-selective broth is necessary. The most widely used plating medium for the isolation of typical sorbitol-non-fermenting strains of STEC of serogroup O157 is sorbitol MacConkey agar with cefixime and tellurite (CT-SMAC). As some STEC strains are sensitive for tellurite and/or are sorbitol-fermenting, the use of a second isolation medium, such as one of the newer chromogenic media, is recommended. Immunomagnetic separation (IMS) following selective enrichment, and subsequent spread-plating of the concentrated target cells onto CT-SMAC agar, appears to be the most sensitive and cost-effective method for the isolation of E. coli O157 from raw foods. IMS increases sensitivity by concentrating E. coli O157 relative to background microflora, which may overgrow or mimic O157 STEC cells on selective agars. While cultural isolation of O157 STEC from foods and faeces is time-consuming, labour-intensive and hence, costly, rapid immunological detection systems have been developed which significantly reduce the analysis time. These methods include enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISAs), colony immunoblot assays, direct immunofluorescent filter techniques, and several immunocapture techniques. Both polyclonal and monoclonal antibodies specific for the O and H antigens are used for these methods. Many of these test systems are able to detect less than one O157 STEC cell g(-1) of raw meat after overnight enrichment. Presumptive results are available after just one day, but need to be completed with the isolation of the organisms. The primary use of these procedures is therefore to identify food and faecal samples that possibly contain O157 STEC.

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