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Ocean Bacteria is Capable of Killing Anthrax, Researchers Say

Jul 22, 2013 01:20 PM EDT

A relatively unknown marine bacteria shows promise in killing the deadly anthrax bacterium and other pathogens.

Oceanography and pharmaceutical science professor William Fenical and his colleagues at the University of California San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography discovered unique properties in the ocean microbe Streptomyces in 2012 and have been trying to understand it better ever since.

The microbe, which was found in sediments close to shore in Santa Monica, Calif., produces a chemical compound the researchers named anthracimycin, and laboratory tests reveal the compound is a potent killer of the anthrax bacterium Bacillus anthracis and other ailments such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, also known as MRSA.

In addition to perhaps finding a way to battle a deadly biological weapon, the find represents the latest evidence that the oceans are a vast and often under-explored resource of new materials that could one day be used to treat a variety of illnesses.

"The real importance of this work is the fact that anthracimycin has a new and unique chemical structure," said Fenical, who added that the finding is a basic research discovery, which could lead to testing and development, and eventually a drug. "The discovery of truly new antibiotic compounds is quite rare. This discovery adds to many previous discoveries that show that marine bacteria are genetically and chemically unique."

Anthrax is a common pathogen in livestock where it can spread quickly through a herd. Animals killed by anthrax are often found dead with no prior signs of illness. Anthrax can affect humans through occupational or incidental exposure with infected animals or their skins, though there are no reports of human-to-human anthrax transmission. The intentional release of anthrax spores by humans for the sake of terrorism, however, has been known to happen.

A variety of vaccines and antibodies are available to combat anthrax, but Fenical's find is of note because the compound has its origins in the sea.

Last week South Dakota announced its first case of anthrax this year in a herd of cattle. Also last week, an anthrax outbreak was reported in Ghana, resulting in the death of 39 sheep.

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