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ABSTRACT: Bacterial species with high DNA sequence similarity to pathogens could affect the specificity of assays designed to detect biological threat agents in environmental samples. The natural presence of four pathogenic bacteria, Bacillus anthracis, Clostridium perfringens, Francisella tularensis, and Yersinia pestis and their closely related species, was determined for a large collection of soil and aerosol samples. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and gene sequencing were used using group-specific 16S rRNA primers to identify pathogens and related species, and pathogen-specific virulence genes. Close relatives of B. anthracis (B. cereus group species) were detected in 37% of the soils and 25% of the aerosol samples. The B. anthracis protective antigen (pag) gene or a close homolog was detected in 16 of these samples. For the other three pathogen groups, the frequency of detection was much lower, and none of the samples were positive with both the phylogenetic and virulence gene primer sets.