HONG KONG, Jun (Reuters) - For three long weeks Europe was gripped with fear battling a mysterious E. coli epidemic, and it wasn’t until late this week that China’s genomics institute nearly 7,000 km away finally put its finger on the culprit.
Chinese scientists at the Beijing Genomics Institute, the world’s largest DNA sequencing center, announced late on Thursday that the E. coli spreading through Europe was “a new strain of bacteria that is highly infectious and toxic.”
The researchers, who obtained DNA samples of the bacteria from collaborating scientists in Germany, managed to fully sequence its genome in three days — becoming the first in the world to do so and lodge its full sequence on the Internet.
They also identified genes in the bacteria that gave it resistance to at least three major classes of antibiotics, which helped explain why doctors in Europe have had such a hard time fighting the bug, that has killed 17 people and made more than 1,500 others ill.
Work continues at BGI’s main research arm in Shenzhen city, which lies just north of Hong Kong, to fully characterize the bacteria.
“We have done further analysis and see even more antibiotic-resistant and toxic genes. Our work is still ongoing,” said Qin Junjie, a member of the team that sequenced the bacterium and is now analyzing it.
The three classes of antibiotics the Chinese scientists identified as ineffective in fighting the bacterium are first-line drugs commonly used to fight gastro-intestinal infections and as surgical prophylaxis.
“It means doctors have a more limited arsenal among first line drugs (to fight this bacteria),” said William Chui, vice president of the Society of Hospital Pharmacists in Hong Kong. Chui was not involved in the sequencing study.
In Europe, authorities are still hunting for the source of the epidemic, which is believed to have contaminated raw vegetables. Without nailing the source, experts fear they may not be able to contain the crisis.
This new strain bears the hallmarks of other E. coli strains that are known to cause symptoms such as bloody diarrhea, or hemorrhagic colitis, and hemolytic-uremic syndrome, which damages the kidneys.
“This bacteria is a strange creature. Many of its genes seem to have been transferred from (distant) E.coli strains, which provide this strain with the ability to cause hemolytic uremic syndrome and/or bloody diarrhea,” said Qin, vice president of BGI’s Microbiology Transomics Center.
To most people, China’s involvement in unraveling this bacterium terrorizing Europe comes as a surprise, particularly as it is still remembered for trying to cover up SARS in 2003.
But to the industry observer, China has come a long way between then and now.
BGI’s research arm in Shenzhen city is strongly backed by the local government, one of China’s wealthiest.
BGI in Shenzhen also provides DNA sequencing and other research services for industry and private individuals and income earned is pumped back into research and development.
It has over 180 sequencing machines, giving it the biggest DNA sequencing capacity in the world, and a total workforce of over 4,000, said Yang Bicheng, BGI’s marketing director.
“For sequencing alone, we have about 300 researchers,” she told Reuters by telephone on Friday.
“We are now trying to understand the toxic genes (of the new E. coli). We are still doing analysis to further identify the functions of these genes,” said Yang, a scientist by training.
“We are developing a diagnostic kit. We are testing it now and hope to get approval for it soon. It will be used to detect the bacteria in food and also in people.”
Asides from sequencing DNA, BGI has pumped in plenty of resources in recent years into animal cloning and improving its rice breeds and other agricultural products to increase yields, which China hopes would eventually help in feeding its growing population.
BGI scientists, some of whom have been trained in leading universities in the United States and Europe, have even modified its in-house cloning techniques, enabling each researcher to clone up to 200 pig embryos in a single day.
It recently set up a unit to commercialize cloning and meat from the offspring of cloned pigs is expected to be available on the Chinese market in a few years.
Editing by Alex Richardson