A new rapid automated method for the identification and classification of microorganisms is described. It is based on the incorporation of 35S-methionine into cellular proteins and subsequent separation of the radiolabelled proteins by sodium dodecyl sulphate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (SDS-PAGE). The protein patterns produced were species specific and reproducible, permitting discrimination between the species. A large number of Gram negative and Gram positive aerobic and anaerobic organisms were successfully tested. Furthermore, there were sufficient differences within species between the protein profiles to permit subdivision of the species. New typing schemes for Clostridium difficile, coagulase negative staphylococci, and Staphylococcus aureus, including the methicillin resistant strains, could thus be introduced; this has provided the basis for useful epidemiological studies. To standardise and automate the procedure an automated electrophoresis system and a two dimensional scanner were developed to scan the dried gels directly. The scanner is operated by a computer which also stores and analyses the scan data. Specific histograms are produced for each bacterial species. Pattern recognition software is used to construct databases and to compare data obtained from different gels: in this way duplicate "unknowns" can be identified. Specific small areas showing differences between various histograms can also be isolated and expanded to maximise the differences, thus providing differentiation between closely related bacterial species and the identification of differences within the species to provide new typing schemes. This system should be widely applied in clinical microbiology laboratories in the near future.
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