Infants in Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs) are particularly susceptible to opportunistic infection. Infected infants have high mortality rates, and survivors often suffer life-long neurological disorders. The causes of many NICU infections go undiagnosed, and there is debate as to the importance of inanimate hospital environments (IHEs) in the spread of infections. We used culture-independent next-generation sequencing to survey bacterial diversity in two San Diego NICUs and to track the sources of microbes in these environments. Thirty IHE samples were collected from two Level-Three NICU facilities. We extracted DNA from these samples and amplified the bacterial small subunit (16S) ribosomal RNA gene sequence using 'universal' barcoded primers. The purified PCR products were pooled into a single reaction for pyrosequencing, and the data were analyzed using QIIME. On average, we detected 93+/-39 (mean +/- standard deviation) bacterial genera per sample in NICU IHEs. Many of the bacterial genera included known opportunistic pathogens, and many were skin-associated (e.g., Propionibacterium). In one NICU, we also detected fecal coliform bacteria (Enterobacteriales) in a high proportion of the surface samples. Comparison of these NICU-derived sequences to previously published high-throughput 16S rRNA amplicon studies of other indoor environments (offices, restrooms and healthcare facilities), as well as human- and soil-associated environments, found the majority of the NICU samples to be similar to typical building surface and air samples, with the notable exception of the IHEs which were dominated by Enterobacteriaceae. Our findings provide evidence that NICU IHEs harbor a high diversity of human-associated bacteria and demonstrate the potential utility of molecular methods for identifying and tracking bacterial diversity in NICUs.
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