Single-tube, nested, reverse transcriptase PCR for detection of viable Mycobacterium tuberculosis

Nainn Tsyr Jou, Robert B. Yoshimori, Gregory R. Mason, James S. Louie, Michael R. Liebling

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

56 Scopus citations


Several problems remain before molecular biology-based techniques, such as PCR, are widely accepted for the detection of infectious agents. Among the most formidable of these problems are the inability of the tests to distinguish between viable and nonviable organisms. We approached this problem by using the fact that bacterial mRNA has an extremely short half- life, averaging only a few minutes. We reasoned that by targeting bacterial mRNA by a reverse transcriptase PCR (RT-PCR), a positive signal would indicate the presence of a recently viable organism. To test our hypothesis, we chose to target the mRNA coding for the ubiquitous 85B antigen of mycobacteria. After partially sequencing the gene coding for 85B, we developed primers that were specific for Mycobacterium tuberculosis. In a single-tube, nested, RT-PCR (STN RT-PCR), these primers detected fewer than 40 CFU in spiked sputum samples and as few as 12 CFU in clinical sputum specimens. The sensitivity of STN RT-PCR with smear-negative samples was as good as that of culture. The specificity was 100%. More importantly, when M. tuberculosis was cultured with and without 1 μg of isoniazid per ml, this assay could distinguish between those cultures which contained the antibiotic and those which did not. Subcultures on Lowenstein-Jensen agar confirmed the viability assessments of the STN RT-PCR. Control experiments demonstrated that isoniazid did not inhibit the RT-PCR. In addition, when an IS6110- targeted, DNA PCR was used to examine the same samples, all samples through 13 days (the last sample) continued to be positive, irrespective of whether isoniazid was present, thereby demonstrating the superiority of an mRNA target in the detection of mycobacterial viability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1161-1165
Number of pages5
JournalJournal of Clinical Microbiology
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1997
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology (medical)


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