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Appl Environ Microbiol. 2006 Mar;72(3):1997-2004.

Selective removal of DNA from dead cells of mixed bacterial communities by use of ethidium monoazide.

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Center for Biofilm Engineering, 366 EPS Building, P.O. Box 173980, Montana State University, Bozeman, MT 59717-3980, USA.


The distinction between viable and dead bacterial cells poses a major challenge in microbial diagnostics. Due to the persistence of DNA in the environment after cells have lost viability, DNA-based quantification methods overestimate the number of viable cells in mixed populations or even lead to false-positive results in the absence of viable cells. On the other hand, RNA-based diagnostic methods, which circumvent this problem, are technically demanding and suffer from some drawbacks. A promising and easy-to-use alternative utilizing the DNA-intercalating dye ethidium monoazide bromide (EMA) was published recently. This chemical is known to penetrate only into "dead" cells with compromised cell membrane integrity. Subsequent photoinduced cross-linking was reported to inhibit PCR amplification of DNA from dead cells. We provide evidence here that in addition to inhibition of amplification, most of the DNA from dead cells is actually lost during the DNA extraction procedure, probably together with cell debris which goes into the pellet fraction. Exposure of bacteria to increasing stress and higher proportions of dead cells in defined populations led to increasing loss of genomic DNA. Experiments were performed using Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Salmonella enterica serovar Typhimurium as model pathogens and using real-time PCR for their quantification. Results showed that EMA treatment of mixed populations of these two species provides a valuable tool for selective removal of DNA of nonviable cells by using conventional extraction protocols. Furthermore, we provide evidence that prior to denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis, EMA treatment of a mature mixed-population drinking-water biofilm containing a substantial proportion of dead cells can result in community fingerprints dramatically different from those for an untreated biofilm. The interpretation of such fingerprints can have important implications in the field of microbial ecology.

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