Nucleic Acids Research vol:37 issue:8 pages:2483-2492
Rapid and reliable virus subtype identification is critical for accurate diagnosis of human infections, effective response to epidemic outbreaks and global-scale surveillance of highly pathogenic viral subtypes such as avian influenza H5N1. The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) has become the method of choice for virus subtype identification. However, designing subtype-specific PCR primer pairs is a very challenging task: on one hand, selected primer pairs must result in robust amplification in the presence of a significant degree of sequence heterogeneity within subtypes, on the other, they must discriminate between the subtype of interest and closely related subtypes. In this article, we present a new tool, called PrimerHunter, that can be used to select highly sensitive and specific primers for virus subtyping. Our tool takes as input sets of both target and nontarget sequences. Primers are selected such that they efficiently amplify any one of the target sequences, and none of the nontarget sequences. PrimerHunter ensures the desired amplification properties by using accurate estimates of melting temperature with mismatches, computed based on the nearest neighbor model via an efficient fractional programming algorithm. Validation experiments with three avian influenza HA subtypes confirm that primers selected by PrimerHunter have high sensitivity and specificity for target sequences.