A colorimetric DNA hybridization assay has been developed for the rapid detection of Escherichia coli in foods. The method employs two oligonucleotide probes which are specific for the 16S ribosomal RNA of E. coli. Probes are added to lysates of test cultures and allowed to hybridize to target rRNA if present. The probe-target complex is captured via hybridization to a polystyrene dipstick. The immobilized target is detected using an antibody-horseradish peroxidase conjugate which binds to the immobilized probe-target complex. The probe-target-antibody complex generates a colorimetric signal when exposed to a substrate/chromogen mixture. A total of 233 E. coli isolates representing typical, toxigenic, invasive, hemorrhagic serotype 0157:H7, and other pathogenic strains all resulted in a positive assay signal. Dose-response experiments indicate the sensitivity of the assay is approximately 1 × 106 CFU/ml. Specificity of the assay was determined by testing 207 strains of non-E. coli species at 109 CFU/ml. All of the non-E. coli organisms tested were negative with the exception of Escherichia fergusonii and Shigella species. A total of 345 enriched samples including inoculated, uninoculated, and naturally-contaminated foods was tested for the presence of E. coli by the hybridization assay and a conventional cultural method. The false-negative rate for the hybridization assay was 1.2%. By comparison, the false-negative rate for the culture method in these studies was 23.4%. Based on these data, the DNA hybridization method is significantly more accurate than conventional methods for the detection of E. coli in foods.

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