Genome sequencing to better understand the meningococcus in Scotland

Scientific version
  • Researchers:
    Dr Caroline Trotter, Dr Ewan Harrison, Dr Gavin Paterson, Dr Giles Edwards, Professor Duncan Maskell, Professor Julian Parkhill, Professor Martin Maiden, Professor Sharon Peacock
  • Start Date:
    01 September 2013
  • Category:
  • Location:
    The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institution, Cambridge, UK, Scottish Haemophilus, Legionella, Meningococcus and Pneumococcus Reference Laboratory, Glasgow, UK, University of Hull, Hull, UK
Genome sequencing to better understand the meningococcus in Scotland

What is this project about?

This project proposes to genome sequence all the strains of N. meningitidis isolated in Scotland from 2009-2013. Nearly two hundred strains and their sequences will be made available to everyone who is interested in studying them by adding them to the existing MRF Meningococcus Genome Library.

Genome sequencing is the determination of the entire DNA sequence or genetic blueprint of an organism. In the case of bacteria, knowing this DNA sequence helps us to begin to answer many important questions such as; how do they cause disease, what drugs will kill them, and what would make a good vaccine. This information provides a good foundation to develop new drugs, new diagnostic tests and vaccines. Indeed, some of the components in the recently licensed MenB vaccine initially came from looking at the genome sequence of Neisseria meningitidis.

Why is this important?

Neisseria meningitidis or the meningococcus is the leading cause of meningitis in the UK. A MenB vaccine was licensed in January 2013 and is currently being considered for introduction into the UK childhood immunisation schedule. It has been estimated to protect against approximately 88% of meningococcal strains in the UK. However, bacteria naturally change and evolve over time and are also able to change rapidly in response to a vaccine so that strains resistant to the vaccine could evolve. Genome sequencing of isolates from Scotland between 2009 and 2013 will help doctors and policy makers evaluate how well the vaccine works against currently circulating strains and to quickly identify any strains the vaccine cannot cover which may have evolved to ‘escape’ the vaccine. Where strains have escaped from the vaccine, we will be able to understand how they have done so and use the genome sequence data to develop a modified vaccine able to combat these strains.

Although many strains of the meningococcus from England, Wales and Northern Ireland have already been genome sequenced, it is a highly diverse and changeable bacterium. Strains in different places may differ from each other or strains may change rapidly over a short period of time. That is why it is important to add genome sequences from Scotland into the Library. Finally, while MenB is the leading cause of meningitis, other types of the meningococcus also cause disease and knowing their genome sequence is important in understanding their epidemiology also.

Potential outcomes

In the short term, all the genome sequences from every meningococcal strain from Scotland from 2009-2013 will be released online to the research community. This will total around 200 strains and provide a valuable resource supporting many aspects of meningococcal research. It will enable Scottish public health surveillance so that decisions can be made using data relevant to Scotland. Once the Scottish genome sequences have been added, the MRF Meningococcus Genome Library will cover an entire disease for the whole of the UK over several years. Results will be published in scientific and medical journals, providing a comprehensive insight into the epidemiology of meningococci in Scotland. The sequence data generated will be significant in the long term in understanding the efficacy and effects of any new meningococcal vaccines including the recently licensed MenB vaccine.