A Supervised Statistical Learning Approach for Accurate Legionella pneumophila Source Attribution during Outbreaks

Andrew H Buultjens, Kyra Y L Chua, Sarah L Baines, Jason Kwong, Wei Gao, Zoe Cutcher, Stuart Adcock, Susan Ballard, Mark B Schultz, Takehiro Tomita, Nela Subasinghe

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    Public health agencies are increasingly relying on genomics during Legionnaires' disease investigations. However, the causative bacterium (Legionella pneumophila) has an unusual population structure, with extreme temporal and spatial genome sequence conservation. Furthermore, Legionnaires' disease outbreaks can be caused by multiple L. pneumophila genotypes in a single source. These factors can confound cluster identification using standard phylogenomic methods. Here, we show that a statistical learning approach based on L. pneumophila core genome single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) comparisons eliminates ambiguity for defining outbreak clusters and accurately predicts exposure sources for clinical cases. We illustrate the performance of our method by genome comparisons of 234 L. pneumophila isolates obtained from patients and cooling towers in Melbourne, Australia, between 1994 and 2014. This collection included one of the largest reported Legionnaires' disease outbreaks, which involved 125 cases at an aquarium. Using only sequence data from L. pneumophila cooling tower isolates and including all core genome variation, we built a multivariate model using discriminant analysis of principal components (DAPC) to find cooling tower-specific genomic signatures and then used it to predict the origin of clinical isolates. Model assignments were 93% congruent with epidemiological data, including the aquarium Legionnaires' disease outbreak and three other unrelated outbreak investigations. We applied the same approach to a recently described investigation of Legionnaires' disease within a UK hospital and observed a model predictive ability of 86%. We have developed a promising means to breach L. pneumophila genetic diversity extremes and provide objective source attribution data for outbreak investigations.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)13pp
    JournalApplied and Environmental Microbiology
    Issue number21
    Publication statusPublished - 2017


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