Bacteria Hidden Under Our Feet May Be a New Weapon Against Superbugs

For the first time in 30 years a new type of antibiotic has been unearthed buried in dirt

Chemical biologist Sean Brady and his colleagues at Rockefeller University in NY sequenced bacterial DNA extracted from 2,000 soil samples taken from across the United States.

Concerns have repeatedly been raised that medicine will be taken back to the "dark ages" if antibiotics are rendered ineffective in the coming years.

Soil is thought to be a good source of antibiotics as its low-nutrient content forces different bacteria species to fight against each other for survival, making them "stronger". This ability to switch on and off, Brady explained, means they may be able to avoid constantly being exposed to the development of resistance. "Our idea is, there's this reservoir of antibiotics out in the environment we haven't accessed yet", Brady said.

The antibiotics' unique approach to killing pathogens targets bacteria's cell walls, which did not cause drug resistance in the laboratory, a U.S. study found.

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Brady and his colleagues were interested in calcium-dependent antibiotics because they appear to switch on in the presence of calcium and off without it.

They also knew that trying to culture all their soil samples in a lab would take forever, and that most would not replicate themselves under lab conditions anyway. They hypothesized that the genes responsible for this "calcium-dependent motif" might be found in other compounds.

But in a paper published to Nature Microbiology, Rockafeller University in NY researcher Sean Brady reported the discovery of a whole new class of antibiotic obtained from an unknown microorganism found in common soil. "We put that collection of genes into Streptomyces, and that bug now gains the ability to make the new molecules, which are the malacidins". The new antibiotics, called malacidins, were successful in sterilizing methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, also known as the superbug MRSA, and the bacteria attacked with the malacidins did not develop resistance.

When the gene was identified and cloned, the team placed it into a microbe that, when cultured, was capable of producing malacidins. 'This might be a way of reducing resistance'.

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"Every place you step, there's 10,000 bacteria, most of which we've never seen, he said".

In addition to existing drugs becoming less effective, there have only been one or two new antibiotics developed in the last 30 years.

Dr. Sean Brady, who leads the team, says it will be a long and hard process to transform this discovery into antibiotics pills to be offered in clinics and pharmacies, but it shows the important potential waiting to be discovered in nature. At present the team is working towards making synthetic versions of Malacidin or finding its analogs in nature for mass production.

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