Mycobacterium avium subsp. paratuberculosis (MAP) causes a chronic gastroenteritis affecting many species. Johne's disease is one of the most widespread and economically important disease of ruminants. Since 1992 and the opening of the European market, the exposure and the transmission of MAP in cattle herds considerably increased. Improvements in diagnostic strategies for Ireland and elsewhere are urgently required. In total, 290 cattle from seven Irish herds with either a history or a strong likelihood of paratuberculosis infection were selected by a veterinary team over 2 years. Faecal samples (290) were collected and screened for MAP by a conventional culture method and two PCR assays. In order to further evaluate the usefulness of molecular testing, a nested PCR was also assessed.
M. paratuberculosis was isolated and cultured from 23 faecal samples (7.9%) on solid medium. From a molecular perspective, 105 faecal samples (36%) were PCR positive for MAP specific DNA. A complete correlation (100%) was observed between the results of both molecular targets (IS900 and ISMAP02). Sensitivity was increased by ~10% with the inclusion of a nested PCR for ISMAP02 (29 further samples were positive). When culturing and PCR were retrospectively compared, every culture positive faecal sample also yielded a PCR positive result for both targets. Alternatively, however not every PCR positive sample (n = 105, 36%) produced a corresponding culture isolate. Interestingly though when analysed collectively at the herd level, the correlation between culture and PCR results was 100% (ie every herd which recorded at least 1 early PCR +ve result later yielded culture positive samples within that herd).
PCR on bovine faecal samples is a fast reliable test and should be applied routinely when screening for MAP within herds suspected of paratuberculosis. Nested PCR increases the threshold limit of detection for MAP DNA by approximately 10% but proved to be problematic in this study. Although slow and impractical, culturing is still regarded as one of the most reliable methods for detecting MAP among infected cattle.