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Searching Soil for an Antibiotic Savior

Jan 20, 2015 07:09 PM EST

Researchers from across the globe are on their hands and knees, digging through the dirt in search of something precious. But it's not gold, diamonds, or even oil that they are after - it's the next antibiotic.

It's no secret that we are becoming utterly surrounded by bacteria and other microbes that can resist the everyday drugs we use.

As put ever-so-calmly by the World Health Organization, a "post-antibiotic era - in which common infections and minor injuries can kill - far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st Century."

To avoid this, experts have been scrambling to find new antibiotics that dangerous microbes are not yet resistant to.

That's where the Drugs from Dirt project comes in. Sean Brady of Rockefeller University, his colleagues, and a whole host of volunteers and scientists from five continents have pooled resources and expertise to sift through soil samples, looking for the homes of microbes boasting interesting antimicrobial properties.

Soil bacteria is pretty fascinating, especially when compared to its many bacterium cousins. That's because these microbes are constantly fighting with one another, sometimes releasing specialized and natural antibiotics in microscopic turf wars. They are also constantly being exposed to the antibiotics that humanity arguably overuses, leading to a stunning level of drug resitance that would be catastrophic if ever seen in common pathogens.

Thankfully, soil bacteria are relatively harmless to humans and are very selfish with their DNA, making them ideal study samples. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : picprofi / Fotolia)

So far, the Drugs from Dirt project has extracted DNA from a stunning 185 different soil samples. This DNA is then compared to the DNA of lab-grown bacteria in the interest of determining which soil and its micro-fauna produced the widest range of important and interesting chemical combinations. These combinations may, at the end of the day, prove to be recipes for some powerful antimicrobial cocktails.

Brady recently told New Scientist that the project's first goal is simply to map out interesting microbial DNA worldwide, highlighting regions for further investigation.

"We'd like to use this info to target the best sites," he said.

Amazingly, the researcher added that normally, this level of extensive surveying and analysis would be too expensive and time-consuming to run. However, about a quarter of the samples in the project so far have been contributed by citizen scientists from all over the world.

Currently, the map only contains regions highlighted by the few hundred samples on hand, but Brady says that the project is just getting started. He plans to have thousands collected and analyzed in the near future, especially with the help of volunteers on hand.

What's more, the map can compliment other ongoing work.

Earlier this month, researchers indentified teixobactin, an antibiotic that appears to eliminate pathogens without any resistance. This challenges the long-held belief that as soon as a microbe is exposed to an antibiotic, it will immediately start working to develop a resistance, even if it takes years and years of mutation to get there.

"[The researchers'] work offers hope that innovation and creativity can combine to solve the antibiotics crisis," Gerard Wright from McMaster University, commenting on this discovery, said in a statement.

Brady told New Scientist that his map can help launch a search for the most efficient teixobactin models in nature - ones that work similarly, but more efficiently than the lab-discovered version.

"They found a rare compound that does a really neat thing - but maybe it's not the best one that nature made," he explained.

If you would like to become a member of the Drug from Dirt citizen scientist team, you can sign up here.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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