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Genetic fingerprinting technique helps identify E. coli bacteria

ecoli October 5, 1998
Web posted at: 10:49 p.m. EDT (0249 GMT)

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Scientists have developed a genetic fingerprinting process that helps public officials detect different strains of the potentially deadly E. coli bacteria.

E. coli is a bacteria normally found in all humans, but certain strains, such as 0157:H7, carry a toxin.

The cutting edge technology is called Pulsed Field Gel Electrophoresis (PFGE), which relies on genetic fingerprinting to determine if different samples of E. coli are related.

E. coli bacteria from victims of an outbreak are cultured to increase their numbers. The bacteria's DNA is chemically cut into small pieces, which are separated according to size.

A fluorescent dye illuminates the DNA under ultraviolet light, allowing scientists to compare different samples.

The new technique proved invaluable to public health officials in Georgia last June, helping them trace an E. coli outbreak to a popular water theme park in suburban Atlanta.

Using their database of E. coli cultures, scientists separated the water park cases from all the other E. coli cases the Georgia Department of Health was dealing with.

The PFGE process is only available in a handful states, but is expected to be more widely adapted in the coming years.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has since established a database of the genetic fingerprints called Pulsenet, allowing public health officials from across the country to more easily identify and cope with E. coli outbreaks.

The CDC reports that the dangerous strain of E. coli known as E. coli 0157 sickens up to 20,000 people in the United States each year and kills several hundred.

Health Correspondent Ann Kellan contributed to this report.

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