“Souvenir” (2022) is based on small purse, believed to have been made by a soldier who was convalescing in Egypt during World War I. The soldier embroidered the phrase “Souvenir of Egypt 1916” on the purse, and Anna Dumitriu has altered and added to the original embroidery with images of Vibrio cholerae bacteria and impregnated them with the DNA of what is believed to be the world’s oldest living Vibrio cholerae bacteria (known as NCTC 30) which was isolated in 1916 from a British soldier in Alexandria.

Dumitriu worked hands-on in the laboratory of the Wellcome Sanger Institute with Dr Matthew Dorman to extract the DNA from this historic bacterium, which has been and cared for, since 1916, by the National Collection of Type Cultures at the UK Health Protection Agency (and its predecessors) using a method of freeze drying.

Cholera is often caught through the consumption of infected water or food and most prevalent when there is a breakdown in infrastructure, such as during times of war, or following natural disasters such as flooding.

Recent research into NCTC 30 tells a fascinating story, because although it predates the introduction of penicillin-based antibiotics (first trialled in human patients in 1941 in Oxford by Professors Florey and Chain), it harbours something called a functional b-lactamase antibiotic resistance gene, meaning that it is resistant to penicillin. This clearly demonstrates how penicillin resistance is a naturally occurring phenomenon, and that genes that encode antibiotic resistance have existed in nature for as long as ancient bacteria began to compete for their ecological niches. However, the pressure of the increased use of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture has led to wide-spread antibiotic resistance. This is a serious existential threat for humanity as the antibiotic medicines that we rely on may stop working.

Additionally, the strange NCTC 30 strain does not have the ability to produce the cholera toxin (CTX) which causes the feared ‘rice water’ diarrhoea, and is transmitted between Vibrio cholerae by a hair-like virus known as a bacteriophage. NCTC 30 also has lost its ability to swim around in water using tiny tails called flagella, unlike the dangerous El Tor pandemic strain which circulates today.

In collaboration with Dr Matthew Dorman and Professor Nicholas Thomson, Thomson Group, Wellcome Sanger Institute, and the National Collection of Type Cultures. Supported by Arts Council England

Materials: Antique velvet drawstring purse impregnated with extracted DNA from NCTC 30 Vibrio cholerae – the world’s oldest living cholera

As part of the “Collateral Effects” project supported by Arts Council England.


Souvenir installation view at the North Wall, Oxford

Collateral Effects” at the North Wall Oxford, UK, 5th – 29th October 2022.

“Collateral Effects” at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Hinxton, UK, 12th January 2023 onwards.