While waters might be contaminated by oocysts from >40 Cryptosporidium species, only viable oocysts of C. parvum and C. hominis truly pose the main health risk to the immunocompetent population. Oocyst viability is also an important but often neglected risk factor in monitoring waterborne parasites. However, commonly used methods in water monitoring and surveys cannot distinguish species (microscopic observation) or oocyst viability (PCR), as dead oocysts in water could retain gross structure and DNA content for weeks to months. Here, we report new TaqMan qRT-PCR/qPCR assays for quantitative detection of viable C. parvum and C. hominis oocysts. By targeting a hypothetical protein-encoding gene cgd6_3920 that is highly expressed in oocysts and variable between species, the qRT-PCR/qPCR assays achieve excellent analytical specificity and sensitivity (limit of quantification [LOQ] = 0.25 and 1.0 oocyst/reaction). Using calibration curves, the number and ratio of viable oocysts in specimens could be calculated. Additionally, we also establish a TaqMan-18S qPCR for cost-effective screening of pan-Cryptosporidium-positive specimens (LOQ = 0.1 oocyst/reaction). The assay feasibility is validated using field water (N = 43) and soil (79) specimens from 17 locations in Changchun, China, which detects four Cryptosporidium species from seven locations, including three gp60-subtypes (i.e., IIdA19G1, IIdA17G1 and IIdA24G2) of C. parvum oocysts showing varied viability ratios. These new TaqMan q(RT)-PCR assays supplement current methods in the survey of waters and other samples (e.g., surfaces, foods and beverages), and are applicable to assessing the efficiency of oocyst deactivation protocols.

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