Minority variants of Mycobacterium tuberculosis harboring mutations conferring resistance can become dominant populations during tuberculosis (TB) treatment, leading to treatment failure. Our understanding of drug-resistant within-host subpopulations and the frequency of resistance-conferring mutations in minority variants remains limited. M. tuberculosis sequences recovered from liquid cultures of culture-confirmed TB cases notified between January 2017 and December 2021 in New South Wales, Australia were examined. Potential drug resistance-conferring minority variants were identified using LoFreq, and mixed populations of different M. tuberculosis strains (≥100 SNPs apart) were examined using QuantTB. A total of 1831 routinely sequenced M. tuberculosis strains were included in the analysis. Drug resistance-conferring minority variants were detected in 3.5% (65/1831) of sequenced cultures; 84.6% (55/65) had majority strains that were drug susceptible and 15.4% (10/65) had majority strains that were drug resistant. Minority variants with high-confidence drug resistance-conferring mutations were 1.5 times more common when the majority strains were drug resistant. Mixed M. tuberculosis strain populations were documented in 10.0% (183/1831) of specimens. Minority variants with high-confidence drug resistance-conferring mutations were more frequently detected in mixed M. tuberculosis strain populations (2.7%, 5/183) than in single strain populations (0.6%, 10/1648; P = 0.01). Drug-resistant minority variants require monitoring in settings that implement routine M. tuberculosis sequencing. The frequency with which drug-resistant minority variants are detected is likely influenced by pre-culture requirement. Culture-independent sequencing methods should provide a more accurate reflection of drug-resistant subpopulations.
Keywords: M. tuberculosis; drug resistance; minority variants; mixed strain populations.