Century-old Bacteria Unearthed in New York Hospital

By ABC News

Oct 6, 2011 1:16pm

ABC News’ Carrie Gann reports:

It was 1897. William McKinley took office as President of the United States. A New York Sun editorial told 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon that, yes, there is a Santa Claus. And someone at the Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York City buried a time capsule full of bacteria in the cornerstone of the building.

On Wednesday, Dr. Martin Blaser, a bacteriologist and chair of the department of medicine at New York University, cracked open the capsule to take a closer look at the century-old microbes, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

Blaser and his team found spores of the bacteria, called Clostridium perfringens, inside a small glass vial. These microbes still live in the intestines of modern humans, but don’t usually cause many infections these days, besides some forms of food poisoning. But at the turn of the 20th century, they often caused infections that led to gangrene.

Even though modern medicine keeps us from being sickened by Clostridium perfringens, Dr. William Schaffner, head of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, said Blaser still has good reason to study these aged organisms.

“He’s trying to see how different this particular strain of organisms is compared with present-day varieties of the bacteria,” Schaffner said. “We may find to our surprise that the bacteria are somewhat different.”

The widespread use of antibiotics, beginning with the 1928 discovery of penicillin, has had a lasting impact on lots of bacteria, particularly on their genes. Blaser told the Journal that he and his team will be looking for how these drugs might have affected Clostridium perfringens.

“We’ve had 70 years of antibiotics, so the question is, have there been new changes in the bacterial genome from the time of that organism,” he said.

The key will be to get the microbes to wake up and start growing. Schaffner said the doctors who buried the time capsule would have known that these bacteria could survive for decades in the austere environment of the glass vial.

“These bacteria can go into hibernation, letting them survive eons without exposure to moisture,” he said. “Now, they’re going to put them in a hospitable environment, surround this spore with a high-grade liquid lunch inside a test tube, and we hope it will wake up and transform into something we can study.”

If the bacteria spores are still alive, Blaser’s team said they should start growing within 24 hours.

“It’s pretty cool if the spores are still viable, and will be cooler still if they actually find a genetic difference,” said David Topham, co-director of the New York Influenza Center of Excellence. “But it’s going to take some time to sort it out.”

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