Research into a bacterial sample from World War I has revealed secrets of the dysentery-causing strain’s success and uncovered the story of the soldier behind the sample.
DNA from first sample to be collected by the UK’s National Collection of Type Cultures has been genetically sequenced for the first time. Comparing the genetics of a sample of Shigella flexneri from 1915 with modern isolates has shown that the bacterium was resistant to penicillin 25 years before it was commonly used. In the century since the war, the bacterium, which still kills hundreds of thousands of people in developing nations, has continued to develop resistance to antimicrobials, making it increasingly difficult to treat.
Researchers were fascinated by the history of the sample, which was collected in a military hospital on the coast of France during World War I. Using just the name of the strain, which seemed to be a surname, and the name of the bacteriologist who collected it, they were able to track down the soldier who had caught dysentery in the trenches of the Western Front. Trawling through archives, they uncovered the story of Private Ernest Cable’s life – and found a man who is still keeping the soldier’s memory alive today, nearly 100 years later.