Century old bacterial spores pose no health risk; may help treat disease

Vial of hundred year old bacteria!

Some people interested in history a hundred years ago placed a time capsule into the foundation of the old Bellevue Hospital Medical College, which is now part of the NYU Medical Center. When parts of the old building were being demolished, a 15 pound metal box was found that had been placed there in 1897. The contents of the box were student records from the time, laboratory notebooks, and interestingly a glass vial containing spores from Clostridium perfringens.  Bacteriologist Edward Dunham included the vial over a century ago, so that future scientists might determine whether spores might enable a microorganism to survive extended periods of time without nutrients. A summary of this article was found by my wife in the magazine Archaeology (thanks honey!), and an earlier report detailing the initial examination of the contents appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

The bacterial specimen turned out to be a patient isolate obtained from the tonsils of a woman, age 23. Clostridium perfringens is a Gram positive, spore forming rod that is a strict anaerobe. Although infections due to C. perfringens are indicated to be the third most frequent form of food poisoning in the United States, but these forms of infection are rarely serious. C. perfringens is also responsible for gas gangrene, an initially localized deep tissue infection that can cause systemic toxemia that can result in death. High dose antibiotics may be necessary to cure the patient, as the ability of the organism to form spores can allow it to survive lower antibiotic doses. Regardless of treatment, death due to this organism is rare today.

Dr. Martin Blaser, chair of Internal Medicine at NYU, and a preeminent bacteriologist, has been tasked with opening the time capsule and to try and resuscitate the hundred year old spores. Long time readers of the BIO230 blog may recall this student posting from the Fall semester detailing other work from the Blaser lab. The spores were aseptically transferred to bacterial media capable of supporting the growth of Clostridium, with the hopes that they could be subcultured. The isolate represents microorganisms from the time before antibiotics, so they may represent a snapshot into the process of how antibiotic resistance arises by comparison with strains from today. The summary from Archaeology (March 2012 issue) indicates that the spores were found to be inviable, however DNA can still easily be obtained from them for comparison with genomes of the organism from today.

I was also interested in learning a bit more about Edward Kellogg Dunham. Dr. Dunham was a classically trained bacteriologist, who spent time in the laboratory of Robert Koch, and was the developer of the “cholera-red reaction,” a rapid test for the detection of Vibrio cholerae. He also discovered the spore forming ability of Bacillus aerogenes capsulatus, the microorganism that would become known as Clostridium perfringens.  His obituary in the journal Science lauded his persistence and dedication in studying this organism. He also carefully studied the meningococcus Neisseria meningitidis, a pathogen that even today causes significant outbreaks and epidemics of bacterial meningitis.


About ycpmicro

My name is David Singleton, and I am an Associate Professor of Microbiology at York College of Pennsylvania. My main course is BIO230, a course taken by allied-health students at YCP. Views on this site are my own.

Posted on February 22, 2012, in A bit 'o history, Microbes in the News. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. always need to be careful with the ‘old’ stuff one finds when looking around. one of the big issues with digging (archeology) in dry climates (like Egypt) is that you will find a mummy with a dessicated open sore lesion that may have contained smallpox. without the vaccine in place these days well, that could be trouble. Same with old bacterial strains. If they were at one point in time natural flora within the human body but we have long since lost a direct relationship with them, then when they are reintroduced we might have a little trouble getting reaquainted.

    • You are of course correct about the potential for unearthing a virulent pathogen. I don’t think smallpox would pose a significant risk from such a source though as the viability of an enveloped virus such as variola is poor outside of a human host for any appreciable amount of time. There was an episode of House from a year or so ago that I labeled with the “Bogus” tag, as I felt that the risk of smallpox infection from their scenario was non-existent. I could have over reacted, however at the time I threw the remote at the TV during the episode.

      Most endospores decrease in viability over short historical time, as the Clostridium example discussed here shows, with an absolute limit that appears to be years as opposed to decades. However there are some very long lived examples that have stood scientific scrutiny.

  2. Dr. Singleton, this is actually really neat! It is sort of a disappointment that the endospores were found to be inviable. Sounds like it could have been a great plot for a movie!

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