Comparison of quantitative PCR and flow cytometry as cellular viability methods to study bacterial membrane permeabilization following supercritical CO2 treatment
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Foodborne illness due to bacterial pathogens is increasing worldwide as a consequence of the higher consumption of fresh and minimally processed food products, which are more easily cross-contaminated. The efficiency of food pasteurization methods is usually measured by c.f.u. plate counts, a method discriminating viable from dead cells on the basis of the ability of cells to replicate and form colonies on standard growth media, thus ignoring viable but not cultivable cells. Supercritical CO2 (SC-CO2) has recently emerged as one of the most promising fresh food pasteurization techniques, as an alternative to traditional, heat-based methods. In the present work, using three SC-CO2-treated foodborne bacteria Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella enterica and Escherichia coli we tested and compared the performance of alternative viability test methods based on membrane permeability: propidium monoazide quantitative PCR (PMA-qPCR) and flow cytometry (FCM). Results were compared based on plate counts and fluorescent microscopy measurements, which showed that the former dramatically reduced the number of cultivable cells by more than 5 log units. Conversely, FCM provided a much more detailed picture of the process, as it directly quantifies the number of total cells and distinguishes among three categories, including intact, partially permeabilized and permeabilized cells. A comparison of both PMA-qPCR and FCM with plate count data indicated that only a fraction of intact cells maintained the ability to replicate in vitro. Following SC-CO2 treatment, FCM analysis revealed a markedly higher level of bacterial membrane permeabilization of L. monocytogenes with respect to E. coli and S. enterica. Furthermore, an intermediate permeabilization state in which the cellular surface was altered and biovolume increased up to 1.5-fold was observed in L. monocytogenes, but not in E coli or S. enterica. FCM thus compared favourably with other methods and should be considered as an accurate analytical tool for applications in which monitoring bacterial viability status is of importance, such as microbiological risk assessment in the food chain or in the environment.