Scientists discover new antibiotic family in soil

Joy Montgomery
February 17, 2018

That's where numerous most widely used antibiotics in medicine come from.

The scientists knew what they were looking for.

The problem, though, is that only about 1% of bacterial species in soil can be cultured in labs, for a variety of reasons. It suggests that there are even more of them out there, ' says Brady.

"We're missing most of the molecules that would have come from that extraordinarily productive platform", said Brady, a chemist and associate professor at Rockefeller University. To expedite the process of obtaining the antibiotic they used high-speed computer processing to sift through the soil samples.

'The [antibiotics] only gain their 3D shape in the presence of calcium and this allows them to then bind their target.

The hunt for new antibiotics is benefiting from recent technological advances which make it easier to rapidly comb the DNA of different soil organisms, which are otherwise hard to raise in a petri dish. "We put it into a bug we can grow, and we look to see whether those genes can confer the production of new molecules".

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The findings were published in the journal Nature Microbiology.

Called malacidins, the new class is capable of killing many types of superbugs, including Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), often spread in hospitals and places where infection can spread easily. Daptomycin is the most well-known of these drugs.

Malacidin's mode of action also means resistance is less likely to develop, as it works by tying up the supply of a bacterium's cell wall building blocks rather than targeting a key enzyme that could mutate. They hypothesized that the genes responsible for this "calcium-dependent motif" might be found in other compounds.

According to The Washington Post, the breakthrough was made by a process of cloning significant quantities of DNA from hundreds of soil samples obtained from across the United States, sent in by a team of eager citizens scientists. They used PCR primers that latch onto a common biosynthetic gene to identify variants of this gene within soils. His team has been trying to analyze them to find naturally-existing antibiotics.

This approach enabled the team to produce enough malacidins to test their antibacterial activity. As a result, the new antibiotic managed to kill drug-resistant skin infections in animals. In addition, Brady and his colleagues were unable to induce resistance to the malacidins.

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.

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