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Image of the Week: Sample of an Unknown Soldier

7 Nov, 2014
Source:  Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

Source: Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

This week’s image tells us a story about remembrance. It’s a story that reminds us of the millions of soldiers who lost their lives during World War I, not at the hands of guns or grenades, but from infectious disease. It’s also a story that demonstrates the impact of people from the past on our health today. In this case, this impact comes from a 1915 tissue sample containing Shigella flexneri, the bacterium which causes dysentery .

Scientists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute wanted to understand how dysentery has evolved over the years, in order to help them combat the disease in developing countries. In these areas it has become increasingly resistant to antibiotics and kills hundreds of thousands of children under five each year.

To understand how Shigella flexneri has changed, researchers analysed the genome of the 1915 sample of Shigella flexneri and compared it to genomes from modern samples. Analysis of the 1915 sample identified areas of the genome that have evolved over nearly 100 years to evade modern antimicrobial treatments. The research also revealed areas of the genome showing resistance to penicillin before it was in widespread use – suggesting inbuilt resistance to the drug.

With this year marking the centenary of WWI, researchers decided to try to identify the soldier that the original sample came from, so they could recognise the contribution he had made to their research. They started out with a clue: the sample’s strain name – Cable. Using Public Health England’s records and the National Archives, Dr Alison Mather from the Sanger Institute was able to track down the hospital where the sample was likely taken. After sifting through the records of a provincial French hospital, Dr Mather eventually found an entry for a Private Ernest Cable of the Second Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment. It recorded his death from dysentery on March 13 1915.

“So many of the samples we work with in bacterial genomics have stories that we’ll never know,” says Dr Mather. “Finding Ernest and learning his story was a chance to commemorate those who fought in World War I, and to highlight the burden of infectious disease during this time.”

The image above is taken from a short film produced by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute that explains this research and the story of finding Private Cable. 

The research papers based on this sample are available in The Lancet and can be accessed online here: Bacillary dysentery from World War 1 and NCTC1, the first bacterial isolate in the National Collection and The extant World War 1 dysentery bacillus NCTC1: a genomic analysis.

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