Penicillin-resistant germ found – from more than a decade before penicillin was discovered.

New Scientist has more on WWI germ that can survive all kinds of modern medicines:

Ernest Cable was a British soldier who died in 1915 from dysentery caught in the trenches of northern France during the first world war. Even if penicillin had been available to treat him, he would still have died because the bacterium that made him sick, Shigella flexneri, was already resistant to the world’s first antibiotic. That was years before Alexander Fleming discovered it in 1928.

Nor would he have been saved by erythromycin, which was discovered later, in 1949. The bacterium was found to be resistant to that too.

These historical insights into antibiotic resistance, now described as a global epidemic, come from DNA sequencing of the bacterial strain that killed Cable to mark the centenary of the first world war.

Codenamed NCTC1, and collected in 1915 by military bacteriologist William Broughton-Alcock in the hospital in Wimereux, France, where Cable was treated, the bacterial strain was the first sample deposited in the UK National Collection of Type Cultures, which today holds 5600 strains. Cable died on 13 March 1915, aged 28, and was buried in a cemetery in Wimereux.

Now, 100 years on, the genome of the bug that killed him has been completely sequenced and compared with three more recent S. flexneri strains, one from Japan in 1954 and two from China, in 1984 and 2002.

Baker found that although 98 per cent of the bacterial DNA is still the same, the more recent strains have acquired extra genes and mutations that give them resistance to many modern antibiotics, including sulphonamides, tetracycline and other beta-lactamase antibiotics.

“They’ve kept evolving, and that’s because of the widespread clinical use of antibiotics,” she says. “Our results tell us that their evolution is very targeted, and tailored to the pressures that we’ve thrown at them.”