Unambiguous identification of nontypeable Haemophilus influenzae (NTHi) is not possible by conventional microbiology. Molecular characterisation of phenotypically defined NTHi isolates suggests that up to 40% are Haemophilus haemolyticus (Hh); however, the genetic similarity of NTHi and Hh limits the power of simple molecular techniques such as PCR for species discrimination.
Here we assess the ability of previously published and novel PCR-based assays to identify true NTHi. Sixty phenotypic NTHi isolates, classified by a dual 16S rRNA gene PCR algorithm as NTHi (n = 22), Hh (n = 27) or equivocal (n = 11), were further characterised by sequencing of the 16S rRNA and recA genes then interrogated by PCR-based assays targeting the omp P2, omp P6, lgtC, hpd, 16S rRNA, fucK and iga genes. The sequencing data and PCR results were used to define NTHi for this study. Two hpd real time PCR assays (hpd#1 and hpd#3) and the conventional iga PCR assay were equally efficient at differentiating study-defined NTHi from Hh, each with a receiver operator characteristic curve area of 0.90 [0.83; 0.98]. The hpd#1 and hpd#3 assays were completely specific against a panel of common respiratory bacteria, unlike the iga PCR, and the hpd#3 assay was able to detect below 10 copies per reaction.
Our data suggest an evolutionary continuum between NTHi and Hh and therefore no single gene target could completely differentiate NTHi from Hh. The hpd#3 real time PCR assay proved to be the superior method for discrimination of NTHi from closely related Haemophilus species with the added potential for quantification of H. influenzae directly from specimens. We suggest the hpd#3 assay would be suitable for routine NTHi surveillance and to assess the impact of antibiotics and vaccines, on H. influenzae carriage rates, carriage density, and disease.