Previously undetected super-spreading of Mycobacterium tuberculosis revealed by deep sequencing

Elife. 2020 Feb 4;9:e53245. doi: 10.7554/eLife.53245.


Tuberculosis disproportionately affects the Canadian Inuit. To address this, it is imperative we understand transmission dynamics in this population. We investigate whether 'deep' sequencing can provide additional resolution compared to standard sequencing, using a well-characterized outbreak from the Arctic (2011-2012, 50 cases). Samples were sequenced to ~500-1000x and reads were aligned to a novel local reference genome generated with PacBio SMRT sequencing. Consensus and heterogeneous variants were identified and compared across genomes. In contrast with previous genomic analyses using ~50x depth, deep sequencing allowed us to identify a novel super-spreader who likely transmitted to up to 17 other cases during the outbreak (35% of the remaining cases that year). It is increasingly evident that within-host diversity should be incorporated into transmission analyses; deep sequencing may facilitate more accurate detection of super-spreaders and transmission clusters. This has implications not only for TB, but all genomic studies of transmission - regardless of pathogen.

Keywords: Tuberculosis; epidemiology; genomic epidemiology; global health; outbreaks; transmission; within-host diversity.

Plain Language Summary

In Canada, tuberculosis disproportionately affects the Inuit, a group of indigenous people inhabiting the Arctic regions. Canada is aiming to eliminate tuberculosis among the Inuit by 2030. One way to help stop transmission and prevent future outbreaks is to trace how and where the disease spreads using DNA sequencing. This information can then be used by public health organizations to identify possible interventions. Typically, the DNA of the bacterium that causes tuberculosis – Mycobacterium tuberculosis, or Mtb for short – is sequenced 50–100 times and a consensus DNA sequence is then generated for each patient from this data. These consensus DNA sequences are then compared to help piece together who infected whom. Recently, scientists have realized that the bacteria a person is infected with may have different DNA sequences due to people being infected with more than one bacterium or the bacterium developing variations in its genome after the infection. However, current DNA sequencing practices may miss these differences, making it harder to trace how the disease spreads. Now, Lee et al. show that sequencing the DNA of Mtb from an infected person 500–1000 times (i.e. ∼10-20 times more than usual) makes it easier to detect genetic differences and determine how tuberculosis spreads. This approach, also known as ‘deep sequencing’, was used to analyze DNA samples of Mtb collected from about 50 people during an outbreak of tuberculosis in 2011-2012, which had previously undergone standard DNA sequencing. This deep sequencing approach identified a ‘super-spreading event’ where one person had likely transmitted tuberculosis to up to 17 others during the outbreak. Lee et al. found that most of these people had visited the same ‘gathering houses’ which are social venues in the community. Implementing targeted public health interventions at these sites may help stop future outbreaks. To fully understand how useful this method will be for tracking the spread of tuberculosis, deep and routine sequencing will need to be compared against each other in different settings and outbreaks. Furthermore, the approach used in this study may be useful for tracking the transmission of other infectious diseases.