Analysis of frozen strawberries involved in a large norovirus gastroenteritis outbreak using next generation sequencing and digital PCR
Virus-contaminated frozen berries have been frequently identified as cause of foodborne disease outbreaks. To provide new tools for virus detection and characterization in berries, next generation sequencing (NGS) and reverse transcription-digital PCR (RT-dPCR) techniques were tested here with strawberries previously involved in a large-scale norovirus (NoV) gastroenteritis outbreak in Germany. By NGS, about 29 million sequence reads were generated, which mainly showed identities to sequences from the plant matrix and from the bacterial flora. Most abundant virus sequences originated from plant-specific viruses, whereas sequences with high identity to human viruses were rare. Only two sequence reads showed homologies to human NoV. They were identical to GII.P16/GII.13 NoV sequences from patients and a strawberry sample independently analyzed during the outbreak. Quantification of the GII NoV RNA of the berries using RT-dPCR confirmed a low mean virus amount of 185 copies/25 g, which is similar to independently assessed RT-qPCR results (257 copies/25 g). The study shows that identification of human-pathogenic viruses in naturally contaminated frozen berries is possible using NGS technologies. However, the method needs to be further optimized in order to enable convenient and reproducible detection of a low amount of human-pathogenic virus sequences in a background of highly abundant nucleic acids of other sources.
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