In 2015, several colleagues and I published a paper showing that the metabolic network of the bacterium Escherichia coli (better known as E. coli) contains a large autocatalytic set. Later on, a popular science version of this work was published in the online magazine “The Naked Scientists”.
Although often associated with food poisoning, most strains of E. coli are actually harmless. In fact, they are part of your normal gut flora. They produce vitamin K, and help fight off other, potentially harmful, bacteria.
E. coli can be cultivated in the lab quite well, and has consequently been studied in great detail. Its carefully reconstructed metabolic network (i.e., the set of all chemical reactions in a living organism that turn food into fuel and building blocks) is the most complete among all bacterial species, or any species for that matter. This is also the main reason we chose it for our own studies.
This particular bacterial species was discovered by and named after Theodor Escherich, hence the full species name Escherichia coli. Escherich (1857-1911) was a German-Austrian pediatrician who, after several earlier positions, eventually became a professor of pediatrics in Vienna, directing the St. Anna children hospital.
Escherich described a bacterium which he called bacterium coli commune in his 1886 monograph on the relationship between intestinal bacteria and infant digestive physiology. Although this publication quickly established him as a leading bacteriologist in pediatrics, it took almost 70 years before the name Escherichia coli became officially recognized.
Escherich died on 15 February 1911, at the early age of 53, and was buried at the Hernalser Friedhof in Vienna’s 17th district. His grave can still be found there, and judging from earlier pictures on this Viennese art and culture guide, it has recently been fully renovated. The two trees surrounding (and somewhat obscuring) the tombstone have been removed, and the grave itself has been thoroughly cleaned.
The Hernalser Friedhof is actually quite beautiful, located on the southern slope of a small hill. Especially during early spring it is a wonderful and quiet place to go for a walk.
When I was working on Escherichia coli‘s metabolic network several years ago, I did not know anything about where its name actually came from. So it was interesting to learn about this recently (mostly by chance), especially given that Theodor Escherich’s grave is a short walk from where I live.
You can find some fascinating information about E. coli on the website of GiantMicrobes.