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Genetic diversity of Mycobacterium leprae: Need to move towards genome-wide approaches.

Leprosy, an ancient disease, continues to be a public health concern as it remains endemic in several countries. After reaching the elimination target (1/10,000) as a public health problem in 2005 in India, around 1.2 lakh cases have been detected every year over the last decade indicating active transmission of leprosy bacillus (Mycobacterium leprae). Single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), genomic insertions/deletions and variable-number tandem repeats (VNTRs) have been identified as genetic markers for tracking M. leprae transmission. As the leprosy bacilli cannot be cultured in vitro, molecular testing of M. leprae genotypes is done by polymerase chain reaction-based sequencing which provides a practical alternative for the identification of strains as well as drug resistance-associated mutations. Whole-genome sequencing (WGS) of M. leprae directly from clinical samples has also proven to be an effective tool for identifying genetic variations which can further help refine the molecular epidemiological schemes based on SNPs and VNTRs. However, the WGS data of M. leprae strains from India are scarce, being responsible for a gross under-representation of the genetic diversity of M. leprae strains present in India and need to be addressed suitably. Molecular studies of leprosy can provide better insight into phylogeographic markers to monitor the transmission dynamics and emergence of antimicrobial resistance. An improved understanding of M. leprae transmission is essential to guide efficient leprosy control strategies. Therefore, this review compiles and discusses the current status of molecular epidemiology, genotyping and the potential of genome-wide analysis of M. leprae strains in the Indian context.

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