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NCTC: We can’t be experts in everything – so can you contribute?

When asked “What did you learn in Culture Collections?” one student responded, “That you can’t be an expert in everything!”.  This was not really a surprising conclusion - the NCTC statistics speak for themselves.  From Abiotrophia adiacens to Zymomonas mobilis, NCTC  microbiologists work with nearly 6000 bacterial strains from more than 900 distinct species in at least 83 different families. The methods used to authenticate the strains range from simple microscopy to whole genome sequencing - with additional typing, mass spectrometry, antimicrobial susceptibility and other supplementary testing included wherever necessary.

This breadth of range of clinically important bacteria means that one of the many skills required of NCTC curators, i.e. those scientists who take care of the collection, is to be able to collaborate with the wider community of trusted taxonomists and microbiologists with expertise not only with the various different bacterial genera but also with the emerging technologies that impact on bacterial classification and nomenclature. This is essential to ensure that NCTC remains scientifically relevant - and in the emerging world of microbiome research, it may become increasingly challenging to find single species experts.

The first Director of NCTC, Dr Sir John Ledingham, was a consultant bacteriologist to the Forces in Mesopotamia in WW1. He published observations on dysentery and enteric fever based on his war experience so it might be expected that the first ever bacteria deposited in NCTC in 1920 were seven strains of Shigella flexneri, some of which had been isolated from soldiers with dysentery. In the early 1900’s Shigella flexneri, then named ‘Bacterium dysenteriae’, was a recently-recognised pathogen. Japanese  microbiologist, Kiyoshi Shiga, established the distinction between bacillary and amoebic dysentery in 1898 and during the two decades following this discovery, many other ‘Bacilli’  were recovered from patients with epidemic or endemic dysentery and shown to be the causative agents of disease.  

One of that first group of strains, NCTC 1, isolated in 1915, has been re-authenticated on many occasions by NCTC microbiologists over the past nine decades using an array of methods, and most recently was tested in 2014 in collaboration with Dr Claire Jenkins’ team in the PHE National Infection Service (NIS) Gastrointestinal  Bacteria Reference Unit (GBRU)1. GBRU are current world leaders in applying whole genome sequencing technology to outbreak investigations where strain relatedness is of paramount importance. DNA extracted from this 100 year old strain was sequenced by colleagues at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute (WTSI) using PacBio1 technology to generate a reference genome as part of the NCTC 3000 project2.  A genomic comparison study linking NCTC1 to more recent strains of S. flexneri, and a painstaking effort to uncover the historical backstory to the NCTC1 strain  led by WTSI scientists,  resulted in two fascinating and scientifically relevant publications3, 4

The NCTC 1 culture and data represent  just one example of almost a century of successful collaborations between NCTC microbiologists and experts beyond the NCTC team.  A note in the NCTC catalogue (1922-1936 edition) states “The co-operation of bacteriologists is earnestly invited, and in return every effort will be made to supply the needs of applicants for cultures”. Today’s NCTC curators stand by this statement – if you contribute strains, data or knowledge, we can provide you with NCTC cultures.

In NCTC we can’t be experts in everything but we curate the collection with expertise. Can you be an expert partner? We invite and welcome  collaborations for developing the value of these important biological resources.


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  1. Pacific Bioscience Ltd (PacBio). Available online.
  2. NCTC 3000 project. Available online.
  3. Baker, K. S., et al. (2014). "The extant World War 1 dysentery bacillus NCTC1: a genomic analysis." Lancet 384 (9955): 1691-1697. 
January 2020