Mutation of Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Implications for Using Whole-Genome Sequencing for Investigating Recent Tuberculosis Transmission

Front Public Health. 2022 Jan 13:9:790544. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2021.790544. eCollection 2021.


Tuberculosis (TB) control programs use whole-genome sequencing (WGS) of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb) for detecting and investigating TB case clusters. Existence of few genomic differences between Mtb isolates might indicate TB cases are the result of recent transmission. However, the variable and sometimes long duration of latent infection, combined with uncertainty in the Mtb mutation rate during latency, can complicate interpretation of WGS results. To estimate the association between infection duration and single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) accumulation in the Mtb genome, we first analyzed pairwise SNP differences among TB cases from Los Angeles County, California, with strong epidemiologic links. We found that SNP distance alone was insufficient for concluding that cases are linked through recent transmission. Second, we describe a well-characterized cluster of TB cases in California to illustrate the role of genomic data in conclusions regarding recent transmission. Longer presumed latent periods were inconsistently associated with larger SNP differences. Our analyses suggest that WGS alone cannot be used to definitively determine that a case is attributable to recent transmission. Methods for integrating clinical, epidemiologic, and genomic data can guide conclusions regarding the likelihood of recent transmission, providing local public health practitioners with better tools for monitoring and investigating TB transmission.

Keywords: genomic sequencing; prevention and control; public health practice; tuberculosis transmission; tuberculosis—epidemiology.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Mutation
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis* / genetics
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide
  • Tuberculosis* / diagnosis
  • Tuberculosis* / epidemiology
  • Tuberculosis* / microbiology
  • Whole Genome Sequencing / methods