Superbugs meet their match in rapid genome sequencing

an image of superbugsClose to real-time tracking of deadly superbugs such as MRSA promises to close down outbreaks faster and save lives

It was the first sign of trouble. Three babies on the special care ward at Rosie Hospital in Cambridge tested positive for the MRSA superbug. Fearing an outbreak of the dangerous organism, managers ordered a deep clean. Staff duly disinfected the ward and went back to work as normal. Four days later the bug struck again.

The cases, in 2011, prompted an investigation by the local infection control team. Through no fault of the staff, it left many questions dangling. Was it a new strain of MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) or merely a cluster of unrelated MRSA infections? Had MRSA spread beyond the baby ward? And how had it come back?

What happened next was a remarkable feat of genetic sleuthing. A team of researchers, led by Sharon Peacock, a clinical microbiologist at the nearby Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute took up the investigation and sequenced the whole genomes of MRSA bugs taken from the babies. Standard genetic tests inspect only a handful of genes and are fine for confirming what strain is causing an infection. But with whole genome sequencing, scientists had the power to reconstruct the history of each pathogen they found.

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