June 19, 2000

Berkeley Lab Science Beat

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One day was all it took a team of researchers at the Joint Genome Institute (JGI) in Walnut Creek, California to unravel the entire genome of the "superbug" Enterococcus faecium -- a harmful, antibiotic-resistant bacterium that is one of the leading causes of hospital-acquired infections.


"I believe this kind of fast response capability could prove to be very useful to researchers in medical, national security and agricultural contexts," said JGI Director Elbert Branscomb.

In a single day, researchers were able to complete the first phase of genome sequencing (the shotgun sequencing phase), permitting essentially all of the organism's genes to be identified. Future work will complete the assembly of the genome and provide a more complete analysis of its genetic structure.

The information gleaned from sequencing the 2.8 million base pairs of DNA will pave the way for medical researchers to find the organism's vulnerabilities, develop vaccines against it, and improve tests and treatments, said George Weinstock, the co-director of the Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

The project is a collaboration between the JGI and Baylor College. The work is funded by the Department of Energy and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Said Energy Department Secretary Bill Richardson, "This is an excellent demonstration of the technological prowess of the Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute. 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."

The rate of infection by bacteria such as E. faecium and other enterococci surged during the past 20 years. Most alarming has been their escalating resistance to antibiotics, including vancomycin, usually considered the treatment of last resort.

The bacterium can spread throughout the body and cause serious infections in the blood, heart, urinary tract, central nervous system, and in wounds. Only a few new antibiotics have been identified in test tube studies that show promise in combating it.

"As a result, the study of fundamental properties of this organism is likely to play an important role in discovering new means to treat, prevent or modulate enterococcal infections," Weinstock said.

The Joint Genome Institute was established in January 1997, merging the genome programs at Berkeley Lab, Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national laboratories.

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