A Novel Propidium Monoazide-Based PCR Assay Can Measure Viable Uropathogenic E. coli In Vitro and In Vivo

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date



Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology






microbiome; non-culturable bacteria; propidium monoazide; relic DNA; urinary tract infection; urine; urobiome; viability


Background: Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is an important means by which to study the urine microbiome and is emerging as possible alternative to urine cultures to identify pathogens that cause urinary tract infection (UTI). However, PCR is limited by its inability to differentiate DNA originating from viable, metabolically active versus non-viable, inactive bacteria. This drawback has led to concerns that urobiome studies and PCR-based diagnosis of UTI are confounded by the presence of relic DNA from non-viable bacteria in urine. Propidium monoazide (PMA) dye can penetrate cells with compromised cell membranes and covalently bind to DNA, rendering it inaccessible to amplification by PCR. Although PMA has been shown to differentiate between non-viable and viable bacteria in various settings, its effectiveness in urine has not been previously studied. We sought to investigate the ability of PMA to differentiate between viable and non-viable bacteria in urine. Methods: Varying amounts of viable or non-viable uropathogenic E. coli (UTI89) or buffer control were titrated with mouse urine. The samples were centrifuged to collect urine sediment or not centrifuged. Urine samples were incubated with PMA and DNA cross-linked using blue LED light. DNA was isolated and uidA gene-specific PCR was performed. For in vivo studies, mice were inoculated with UTI89, followed by ciprofloxacin treatment or no treatment. After the completion of ciprofloxacin treatment, an aliquot of urine was plated on non-selective LB agar and another aliquot was treated with PMA and subjected to uidA-specific PCR. Results: PMA’s efficiency in excluding DNA signal from non-viable bacteria was significantly higher in bacterial samples in phosphate-buffered saline (PBS, dCT=13.69) versus bacterial samples in unspun urine (dCT=1.58). This discrepancy was diminished by spinning down urine-based bacterial samples to collect sediment and resuspending it in PBS prior to PMA treatment. In 3 of 5 replicate groups of UTI89-infected mice, no bacteria grew in culture; however, there was PCR amplification of E. coli after PMA treatment in 2 of those 3 groups. Conclusion: We have successfully developed PMA-based PCR methods for amplifying DNA from live bacteria in urine. Our results suggest that non-PMA bound DNA from live bacteria can be present in urine, even after antibiotic treatment. This indicates that viable but non-culturable E. coli can be present following treatment of UTI, and may explain why some patients have persistent symptoms but negative urine cultures following UTI treatment.