During World War I, British soldier Ernest Cable arrived sick at a hospital in France. A sample of Shigella flexneri – the bacterium that causes dysentery – was taken from Private Cable, and this sample was the first and fundamental culture of what is now one of the oldest “living libraries” of bacteria in the world: the National Collection of Type Cultures (NCTC).
Housed in one of the UKHSA’s largest sites, the NCTC exists to support scientists around the world in understanding infectious diseases. It has been in operation for 100 years, surviving a world war, six relocations and continuous expansion. The collection has been overseen by many scientists over the past century and The Princess Royal recently visited as part of its centenary celebrations.
A window into the past
The collection was formally established on January 1, 1920 and was originally located at the Lister Institute of Preventative Medicine in Chelsea, providing a reliable source of authentic bacteria for use in scientific studies. Its first 200 cultures, including that of Private Cable, were deposited by Sir Frederick William Andrewes, a pathologist who studied dysentery during World War I.
The Lister Institute was bombed during World War II, but luckily the collection had already been moved to a north London farm where it was kept throughout the war.
From this point, cultures were shared among scientists. The practice of sharing continues and forms a crucial part of the worldwide effort to understand and overcome the infectious diseases we are dealing with now.
Whether they intended or not, the founders of the collection created a window into the past that continues to play a vital role in modern medicine.
Today, NCTC cultures help us develop vaccines and discover new drugs; are critical to ensuring that clinical diagnostic microbiological test results are accurate and internationally comparable.
The collection has about 6,000 bacterial strains and is made up of more than 900 species, most of which with beneficial or harmful effects on human and animal health, or otherwise used in the diagnosis of infectious diseases.
There are nearly 800 registered crop collections globally, but the NCTC is one of the few that is tasked with treating only bacteria of clinical and veterinary importance.
Perhaps the most famous addition is “NCTC 6571”, or Oxford Staphylococcus, which was used to help develop and distribute the first modern antibiotic, penicillin. Penicillin was developed as a therapeutic agent at Oxford University’s Sir Willian Dunn School of Pathology in the late 1930s and early 1940s by a team that included Sir Alexander Fleming.
In 1943, Fleming added NCTC 6571 Staphylococcus aureus to the NCTC collection and stated in a letter that “all of us in the penicillin trials are using it.” Today, NCTC 6571 is still in use as an antibiotic sensitive control, helping to ensure that penicillin can fight the bacteria it targets.
Addition to sample collection and sharing
Back then, the method of sharing samples was very different. The bacteria were delivered alive on an egg yolk based agar medium and then sealed with paraffin wax. This left the possibility of infection open to the people who managed it.
Today we use a method called freeze drying to preserve all strains added to the harvest. This technique was introduced to the collection in 1940 and remains largely unchanged to this day.
When we receive a new strain of bacteria, it is first taken to the NCTC laboratory and examined to determine the best way to grow it, then they are freeze-dried for long-term storage before undergoing quality controls, which ensure they are pure, viable and keep original features as described.
Modern developments and a look to the future
Since the beginning of 21ns century, one of the most historic developments occurred between 2013 and 2018 when the NCTC and the Wellcome Sanger Institute provided long-read genome-wide sequence data for more than 3,000 NCTC strains. Genome sequencing is the process by which the entire DNA sequence of an organism is determined and all the standard strains stored in the NCTC collection have undergone this process.
Significantly, these genomic data are freely available and can be extracted by microbiologists and bioinformaticians for years to come. It recently enabled NCTC scientists to use genome sequence data to gain insight into how to deal with antimicrobial-resistant gonorrhea.
The teams running the NCTC for the past 100 years have always been dedicated to using new technologies to create innovative means to allow scientists to interact with the collection. In addition to advances in microbiology, this also includes the application of new communication technologies, digital imaging and social media.
Curators create broad networks of science scientists and communicators, participate in engagement programs, help develop training for biomedical scientists of the future, and work with artists and writers to raise awareness of what we do and why.
The NCTC team is committed to developing global relationships and working to ensure they can face 21ns challenges of the century for our health.
The future looks bright as we enter the NCTC’s second century of providing vital information for scientific studies and developments that will help us stay healthier and safer.