Data update: Bacterial growth on tellurite

by Mike

If you’ve read Ruth Gilbert and E.M. Humphreys (1926), The use of potassium tellurite in differential media (J. Bacteriol. 11(2):141-151) recently, you’ve probably noticed that the bacterial nomenclature is out of date and it’s hard to tell which species they’re talking about. The descriptions of colony morphology don’t help much, as they only tell us what the colonies look like on beef infusion agar with 5% horse serum and 1/34,000 tellurium content. So here we present the first in what may be a series, of ancient data updated for the modern reader.

Table 2

This table is clear and concise. I would not have made the text in the headers smaller than the text in the columns, and the spacing/justification is inconsistent, but it tells us a lot. Fungi (ActinomycesAspergillusSaccharomyces) had no trouble growing on tellurified plates, but both bacilli and cocci showed the full range between being unaffected and being totally wiped out.

However, the viewer used to modern bacterial nomenclature is perplexed. Some amendments to the names of these organisms have been made over the years. I was able to figure out what all of them are called nowadays, except “Bacillus pestis caviae” (probably some sort of Salmonella) and the Mt. Desert thing (probably a strain of Shigella). And I can’t get to square one of figuring out what “Type I, Type II and Type III” Pneumococcus correspond to today. That way lies madness.

The table has been amended using the modern graphical presentation package MS Paint, which was not available until almost sixty years after this paper was published (1985).

Table 2.0.1

To summarize:

  • 3 out of 3 fungal species are unchanged.
  • 3 out of 53 bacterial species/subspecies are unchanged. Only Bacillus anthracis, Bacillus subtilis, and Staphylococcus aureus. Bacillus proteus vulgaris is almost the same, with Bacillus removed and the remaining, oddly medieval name intact. Pneumococcus is still pneumococcus.
  • Every bacillus really used to be called Bacillus, didn’t it?
  • The only instance of “lumping” rather than “splitting” genera I see is moving Sarcina in with Micrococcus.
  • Meanwhile, most of the Micrococcus species were split into different genera, and what was once called Micrococcus tetragenus based on its  tetrad morphology is now close to being synonymous with the genus Micrococcus as a whole.
  • “Pestis caviae” means “plague of guinea pigs”. I’ve seen one reference to Bacillus pestis-caviae being the same as Bacillus typhimurium, and one reference to it being the same as Bacillus aertrycke, which seems to in turn be the same thing as Bacillus suipestifer. I can’t quite tell what the difference is between Bacillus suipestifer and Bacillus choleraesuis is either, as both are described (etymologically as well) as the agent that causes hog cholera. All of these were at one point designated as part of the “Paratyphoid B” group of bacilli, which were then renamed Salmonella. And then a bunch of others were moved into Salmonella, and then it was determined that basically all Salmonella were in the same species and subspecies, and could only be classified as “serovars” of S. enterica enterica. So who knows.
  • As it was then, this remains a list of the most significant human pathogens. Plus some that affect farm animals, and two that look cool (P. fluorescens and C. violaceum).
  • The veil of history is drawn back, and patterns emerge. We can now tell that Corynebacterium species are not inhibited by tellurium, and Clostridium are very inhibited. And Klebsiella and Salmonella are in the middle.
  • In fact… how about a new table?

Table 2.1

Journal of Bacteriology, issue 11 (February 1926), is available here.