Detecting Flavobacterial Fish Pathogens in the Environment Using High-Throughput Community Analysis

Appl Environ Microbiol. 2021 Nov 17;AEM0209221. doi: 10.1128/AEM.02092-21. Online ahead of print.


Diseases caused by the fish pathogens Flavobacterium columnare and Flavobacterium psychrophilum are major contributors of preventable losses in the aquaculture industry. The persistent and difficult to control infections caused by these bacteria make timely intervention and prophylactic elimination of pathogen reservoirs important measures to combat these disease-causing agents. In the present study, we present two independent assays for detecting these pathogens in a range of environmental samples. Natural water samples were inoculated with F. columnare and F. psychrophilum over five orders of magnitude, and pathogen levels were detected using Illumina MiSeq sequencing and droplet digital PCR. Both detection methods accurately identified pathogen-positive samples and showed good agreement in quantifying each pathogen. Additionally, the real-world application of these approaches was demonstrated using environmental samples collected at a rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) aquaculture facility. These results show that both methods can serve as useful tools for surveillance efforts in aquaculture facilities, where the early detection of these flavobacterial pathogens may direct preventative measures to reduce disease occurrence. Importance Early detection of a deadly disease outbreak in a population can be the difference between mass mortality or mitigated effects. In the present study, we evaluated and compared two molecular techniques for detecting economically impactful aquaculture pathogens. We demonstrate that one of these techniques, 16S rRNA gene sequencing using Illumina MiSeq technology, provides the ability to accurately detect two freshwater fish pathogens, F. columnare and F. psychrophilum, while simultaneously profiling the native microbial community. The second technique, droplet digital PCR, is commonly used for pathogen detection, and the results obtained using the assays we designed with this method served to validate those obtained using the MiSeq method. These two methods offer distinct advantages. The MiSeq method pairs pathogen detection and microbial community profiling to answer immediate and long-term fish health concerns, while droplet digital PCR method provides fast and highly sensitive detection that is useful for surveillance and rapid clinical responses.