Accurate profiling of forensic autosomal STRs using the Oxford Nanopore Technologies MinION device

The high variability characteristic of short tandem repeat (STR) markers is harnessed for human identification in forensic genetic analyses. Despite the power and reliability of current typing techniques, sequence-level information both within and around STRs are masked in the length-based profiles generated. Forensic STR typing using next generation sequencing (NGS) has therefore gained attention as an alternative to traditional capillary electrophoresis (CE) approaches.

In this proof-of-principle study, we evaluate the forensic applicability of the newest and smallest NGS platform available – the Oxford Nanopore Technologies (ONT) MinION device. Although nanopore sequencing on the handheld MinION offers numerous advantages, including on-site sample processing, the relatively high error rate and lack of forensic-specific analysis software has prevented accurate profiling across STR panels in previous studies.

Here we present STRspy, a streamlined method capable of producing length- and sequence-based STR allele designations from noisy, long-read data. To demonstrate the capabilities of STRspy, seven reference samples (female: n = 2; male: n = 5) were amplified at 15 and 30 PCR cycles using the Promega PowerSeq 46GY System and sequenced on the ONT MinION device in triplicate. Basecalled reads were processed with STRspy using a custom database containing alleles reported in the STRSeq BioProject NIST 1036 dataset. Resultant STR allele designations and flanking region single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) calls were compared to the manufacturer-validated genotypes for each sample.

STRspy generated robust and reliable genotypes across all autosomal STR loci amplified with 30 PCR cycles, achieving 100% concordance based on both length and sequence. Furthermore, we were able to identify flanking region SNPs with >90% accuracy.

These results demonstrate that nanopore sequencing platforms are capable of revealing additional variation in and around STR loci depending on read coverage. As the first long-read platform-specific method to successfully profile the entire panel of autosomal STRs amplified by a commercially available multiplex, STRspy significantly increases the feasibility of nanopore sequencing in forensic applications.

Authors: Courtney L. Hall, Rupesh K. Kesharwani, Nicole R. Phillips, John V. Planz, Fritz J. Sedlazeck, Roxanne R. Zascavage