Lactobacillus casei,Lactobacillus paracasei and Lactobacillusrhamnosus form a closely related taxonomic group (the L. casei group) within the facultatively heterofermentative lactobacilli. Strains of these species have been used for a long time as probiotics in a wide range of products, and they represent the dominant species of nonstarter lactic acid bacteria in ripened cheeses, where they contribute to flavour development. The close genetic relationship among those species, as well as the similarity of biochemical properties of the strains, hinders the development of an adequate selective method to identify these bacteria. Despite this being a hot topic, as demonstrated by the large amount of literature about it, the results of different proposed identification methods are often ambiguous and unsatisfactory. The aim of this study was to develop a more robust species-specific identification assay for differentiating the species of the L. casei group. A taxonomy-driven comparative genomic analysis was carried out to select the potential target genes whose similarity could better reflect genome-wide diversity. The gene mutL appeared to be the most promising one and, therefore, a novel species-specific multiplex PCR assay was developed to rapidly and effectively distinguish L. casei, L. paracasei and L. rhamnosus strains. The analysis of a collection of 76 wild dairy isolates, previously identified as members of the L. casei group combining the results of multiple approaches, revealed that the novel designed primers, especially in combination with already existing ones, were able to improve the discrimination power at the species level and reveal previously undiscovered intraspecific biodiversity.
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