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Wednesday, 10 May, 2000, 16:43 GMT 17:43 UK
Danger bacterium decoded in a day

E. faecium Dr Nathan Shankar
E. faecium develops resistance rapidly
Image by Dr Nathan Shankar, University of Oklahoma

By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

It has taken scientists just a day's work to unravel the entire genetic sequence of an antibiotic-resistant "superbug" that is one of the leading causes of hospital-acquired infections.

The success with Enterococcus faecium points the way for other pathogens to be decoded in double quick time.

E. faecium is quite common and usually harmless, but among vulnerable patients can cause deadly infections in the bloodstream and heart.

Researchers are concerned by the microbe's ability to develop resistance to antibiotics, including vancomycin, usually considered the last line of defence against bacterial infections.

Twisted ladder

Having the bacterium's entire "life code" will allow scientists to find new ways of fighting the organism.

The work has been done extraordinarily quickly - even by the latest standards. The 2.8 million "base pairs" - the nucleotides that pair up to make the twisted ladder of DNA's double helix - were sequenced using what is the essentially one day's production capacity at the US Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute (JGI) in California.

The code is in large fragments that now need to be ordered and analysed to find the location of what are thought to be about 3,000 genes.

"I've been saying that we could sequence a bacterium in a day," said JGI Director Elbert Branscomb. "So when I was asked if we could help with work on this pathogen, we leapt at the chance to both demonstrate the capability and provide a useful service to the medical community."

Microbial world

US Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said: "This new capability to rapidly decode the DNA of microbes can be used to provide the scientific community with a huge amount of fundamental data about life and the microbial world.

"This information allows us to explore bacteria that cause disease, as well as bacteria that can clean up the environment and benefit us in many other ways."

The genome sequence will be used by medical researchers to find the organism's vulnerabilities, picking out the protein targets against which vaccines can be directed.

"This research breakthrough paves the way for preventive vaccines, in addition to better diagnostic tests and treatments," said George Weinstock, the co-director of the Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor College of Medicine.

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