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Home News centre National Press Releases 2011 Press Releases ›  HPA scientists unlock secrets of E. coli outbreak strain

HPA scientists unlock secrets of E. coli outbreak strain

13 June 2011

Scientists at the Health Protection Agency (HPA) have produced the most accurate and detailed genetic analysis to date of the E. coli O104 strain which is causing the outbreak of Haemolytic Uraemic Syndrome (HUS) and VTEC E. coli infection (bloody diarrhoea) in Germany. Cases are also being seen across many other European countries including 14 in the UK – three HUS and 11 bloody diarrhoea.

Their findings, which have been uploaded onto the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) website to assist in the international effort to control this outbreak, confirm earlier research that E. coli O104 has evolved to produce a new variant of this infectious agent. This new strain of E. coli O104 has a unique combination of features containing genes from two different types of E. coli as well as its own genes.

The HPA team has identified that these gene combinations produce a dangerous mix of properties. Insight into the genome may help to explain why this outbreak is so virulent - previous cases of E. coli O104 have not been associated with severe outbreaks in the past.

Using state-of-the-art 'next generation' sequencing techniques, the HPA team who are based at the agency's laboratories in Colindale, have worked around the clock since the first UK cases of E. coli O104 linked to this infection were confirmed a week ago. They have been able to 'map' the exact location of the genes contained within the strain and their relation to one another.

The team are now analysing these genes to identify any unique features, particularly whether they have any motifs which suggest ability to adhere or 'stick' to surfaces which may be involved in transmission of the infection.

Professor Saheer Gharbia, head of the HPA's bioanalysis department, said: "We are delighted to have produced this comprehensive data on the genetic codes and their organisation. We are sharing HPA data with the scientific community as soon as we have assembled it to assist the international effort to tackle this emerging infection. This work demonstrates HPA capability for monitoring outbreaks and analysing data to assist global risk assessment.

Dr John Wain, head of the HPA's laboratory for gastrointestinal pathogens, said:
"This full genetic information will allow us to explain the bacteria more fully and may give us clues about the origin of the outbreak, such as the type of environment where it evolved and how this combination of genes came to be in a single organism.

"At the present time, the genetic information we've been able to derive from these UK cases that are linked to the outbreak will enable us to develop diagnostic tests that could be rolled out across the HPA's network of laboratories if required."

"The HPA has already formed a partnership with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute to safely construct genetically modified variants of the outbreak strain to gain insight into the biology of this infectious agent and pin point why it causes such severe disease."

HPA's chief executive Justin McCracken, said: "The ability of the HPA to rapidly apply these innovative technologies to an unexpected emergence of a new and significant infection is an excellent example of translational research that will have a significant impact on outbreak investigation now and in the future." 


Notes to editors:

1. The sequence data can be viewed on the NCBI website The GeneBank Project ID is 67929 and the accession number is afpn00000000. The data can also be viewed on the HPA website:

2. To see the latest clinical update and public health advice in relation to this outbreak, view the latest press statement:

3. For a Q&A on this topic, visit the HPA's homepage 

4. For media enquiries please contact the national HPA press office at Colindale on 020 8327 7901 or email Out of hours the duty press office can be contacted on 020 8200 4400.



Last reviewed: 13 June 2011