The Genomes of 3,000 Dangerous Bacteria are Helping to Fight Antibiotic Resistance

(Credit: Ecole Polytechnique Federale De Laussane)

Did you know that scientists have been collecting bacteria for almost 100 years, which has resulted in an accumulation of over 5,500 species in the National Collection of Type Cultures (NCTC)? The collection even includes deadly strains of plague, dysentery and cholera.

Not a place I’d personally like to visit, but this collection is used extensively by researchers studying the evolution of bacterial strains to advance global knowledge about the epidemiology, virulence, prevention and treatment of infectious diseases.

Today, the genomes of more than 3000 of these bacteria have been mapped by scientists in order to better understand diseases and the mechanisms of antibiotic resistance; an increasingly prominent global issue that’s also being targeted by synthetic biologists. The NCTC contains samples of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which is resistant to multiple antibiotics and which can cause life-threatening infections in hospitals.

“This resource is a vital tool for public health and by sequencing the bacteria, we have made the NCTC collection ready for the 21st century so that the research community can track and understand the bacteria. With this collection, we are providing tools for tracing infections, and identifying outbreaks of resistant bacteria, transforming public health in the UK,” said Dr. Julie Russell, Head of Culture Collections, which is operated by the National Infection Service of Public Health England.


The resource contains some really cool history too, including a collection of 16 bacterial strains deposited by Sir Alexander Fleming himself, including a sample taken from his own nose! There’s also a strain of dysentery-causing Shigella flexneri that was isolated in 1915 from a soldier in the trenches of World War 1 — the first bacteria to be deposited in the NCTC.

Dr. Julian Parkhill from the Wellcome Sanger Institute said: “Historical collections such at the NCTC are of enormous value in understanding current pathogens. Knowing very accurately what bacteria looked like before and during the introduction of antibiotics and vaccines, and comparing them to current strains from the same collection, shows us how they have responded to these treatments. This, in turn, helps us develop new antibiotics and vaccines. PacBio’s comprehensive DNA sequencing enables deep genomic analyses, and we are happy to be partnering with them for this important project.”

As the NCTC continues to collect bacterial species in the future, all samples will be sequenced as they are collected. Full information about each of the strains in the NCTC, including the DNA sequences, are available at EMBL-EBI. The information is freely available to researchers worldwide to be used in research that will help develop new diagnostic test, vaccines and treatments.