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Happy 100th birthday to NCTC 

NCTC holds nearly 6000 historically and microbiologically significant live bacterial strains, most of which have caused infections in humans or animals Scientists around the world have come to NCTC for 100 years to request cultures of strains, and more recently extracted bacterial DNA, so they can undertake tests and mine the associated data. This collection has always captured the imagination of the people who look after it and keep it relevant; the scientists who contribute to it range from less well-known microbiologists to world-famous Nobel Prize winners.

NCTC was established in 1920 to “provide a trustworthy source of authentic bacteria for use in scientific studies”. We can speculate as to whether the founders knew that the collection would hold answers to so many scientific questions over the next 100 years or imagine that the strains would be used so widely in fields such as drug discovery, vaccine development and method advancement. NCTC cultures are now a mainstay in ensuring results from clinical diagnostic microbiology tests are accurate and internationally comparable.

The bacteria held in NCTC provide windows into the past, as well as providing data for present scientists to deliver benefits for people’s health and wellbeing. The NCTC type strains are arguably the collection’s most important strains because they are the first isolates of a new species that every other strain of the species will be compared against. Names of new species must be published in the International Journal for Systemic Bacteriology, together with a strain description and designation of the type strain and there are nearly 1000 type strains in NCTC. New type strains are deposited with the collection every year.

The history of NCTC reflects changes in taxonomy, nomenclature and identification methods. Traditionally NCTC curators made a major contribution to international proceedings for bacterial nomenclature and taxonomy. Routine identification of bacteria in the early 20th century relied on morphological and biochemical tests, later supplemented by serotyping and antimicrobial susceptibility patterns. By the 1960’s, NCTC scientists led the field in numerical (computer) taxonomy used to determine the degree of similarity between different bacteria using a wide spectrum of tests. During the 1970’s gas liquid chromatography (GLC) was explored to assess bacterial metabolites and compare differences between different species.

The 1980’s hailed the development of enzyme analysis and molecular identification using gel electrophoresis methods to separate nucleic acids. By the 1990’s 16S ribosomal RNA sequencing was being introduced and methods such as PCR and amplified fragment length polymorphism (AFLP) analyses soon followed. To date, the most important 21st century development resulted from a collaboration between NCTC and the Wellcome Sanger Institute, that ran between 2013 and 2018 and delivered long-read whole genome sequence data for more than 3000 NCTC strains, including almost all of the type strains preserved in the collection at that time. This genomic data is freely available and will be mined by microbiologists and bioinformaticians for years to come. NCTC scientists recently used genome sequence data in conjunction with proteomic analysis techniques to gain insight into the mechanisms of antimicrobial resistance in Neisseria gonorrhoeae.

The teams operating NCTC over the past 100 years have always been dedicated to using new technologies to create innovative means for scientists to interact with the collection. In addition to advances in microbiology, this also includes the application of newer communication technology, digital imaging and social media. We create wide networks of scientists and scientific communicators, engage with programmes like British Science Week to spread the message about the value of collections like NCTC, engage in training the biomedical scientists of the future and work with artists and writers to raise awareness of what we do, and why. NCTC is committed to developing global relationships to continue to meet 21st century challenges to people’s health and create new commercial opportunities to help assure the collection’s continued longevity.

The future looks bright as we move into NCTC’s second century of providing “authentic bacteria for scientific studies”.


Written by Julie Russell 

January 2020