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In Puerto Rico, a new molecular bacteriology lab allows better control of foodborne outbreaks

Public health laboratory scientist performing tests

Sometimes a new facility is more than just four walls and a roof. In Puerto Rico, it was the springboard to improving foodborne outbreak response on the whole island.

In May 2019, Puerto Rico inaugurated a new molecular bacteriology laboratory at the Puerto Rico Department of Health’s laboratory (PRDOH) in San Juan. The original laboratory had been out of commission since Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017, and was rebuilt with APHL contracting support for repair and redesign. Today, the new laboratory boasts additional space for laboratory instruments, supplies and staff, as well as a reliable roof.

With the molecular bacteriology laboratory up and running, the PRDOH could take on a top goal: implementing whole genome sequencing (WGS) for foodborne outbreak response. WGS provides faster detection of pathogens than alternative methods, leading to rapid implementation of prevention and control measures and speedier investigation of foodborne outbreaks. Like other members of PulseNet, the US network for detection of foodborne outbreaks, the PRDOH needed to add WGS as another detection tool. Now, with a bit of assistance, it could.

APHL helped the PRDOH by procuring Illumina’s MiSeq Sequencing Platform and supporting installation and hands-on training for laboratory staff. The association also facilitated staff travel to CDC headquarters in Atlanta for a deeper dive into WGS methodology and procured BioNumerics software to upgrade the laboratory’s database so it could support WGS data.

To date, the molecular bacteriology laboratory has made excellent progress toward implementing WGS methods for foodborne pathogens. The laboratory is now working toward validation of these methods; once validation is completed it will apply for certification under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments Program, which oversees standards and certification for human testing in the US. The laboratory also plans to introduce a new tool—matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization – time of flight (MALDI-TOF) mass spectrometry—as a complement to WGS in the effort to detect foodborne outbreaks.

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