Many of the compounds we rely on to treat diseases come from bacteria and microorganisms in our environment. These include antibiotics and anti-cancer drugs. Microorganisms use these compounds to compete with and kill other microorganisms in their environment in order to gain a selective advantage. For the better part of 70 years antibiotics have been hugely successful in limiting the suffering and death of infectious diseases like strep throat, syphilis, gangrene, and meningitis. However, recently we have been met with a difficult problem, antibiotic resistance (See this video) . Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria evolve a way to defend themselves from the action of our antibiotics and then spread that resistance throughout their population. It is surprisingly easy for antibiotic resistance to develop in a population when the drugs are used incorrectly or at inappropriate way (say to treat a viral infection). As resistance develops, stronger and more expensive drugs are needed to treat the bacteria. Unfortunately, eventually the bacteria begin to develop resistance to these antibiotics in a sort of evolutionary arms race and develop into what have been called superbugs. These superbugs include MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), VRSA (vancomycin-resistant S. Aureus), and multi drug resistant tuberculosis. Our options for treating these nasty bugs is getting slimmer and they are troubling doctors and researchers everywhere. However, some researchers are starting to find new ways of getting a leg up in the race.
The trouble with identifying new compounds for antibiotics starts with our inability to grow the majority of bacteria that exist in our environment. For one reason or another, many bacteria are resistant to growing for us in glass dishes in the lab making it hard to characterize them and learn how they may help us. Some ingenious researchers from Boston were recently able to identify a new antibiotic by growing some soil bacteria between layers of the soil they are normally found in. This was a smart trick to get a usually stubborn species of bacteria to grow, and hopefully the antibiotic can prove to be helpful in fighting back against resistant infections, but there were still only a handful of bacteria that could be grown this way and there are still thousands of different strains whose antibiotic producing capabilities remains relatively unknown. This is where a new research project out of New York hopes to help.
The project, dubbed ‘Drugs from Dirt’ is aiming to identify bacteria in soil samples from around the world that hold the promise of containing bacteria with the ability to produce new drugs. They are doing this not by trying to grow the bacteria, which we know is difficult, but by looking at DNA segments used by the bacteria to make these compounds we use as drugs and comparing them to bacteria that are already known to make drugs. The idea is that if we can know ahead of time which soil has potentially important bacteria in them then the researchers who are trying to isolate antibiotic compounds can focus their time and effort in these spots. Think of it as a catalogue of antibiotic producing bacteria for researchers.
The project has already identified some interesting species of bacteria in soil from New Mexico and Brazil that hold promise for giving us new antibiotics or drugs but has much more work to do. If you want to contribute some of your soil to the project you can! Just go to this website (http://www.drugsfromdirt.org/), fill out the form and indicate where you live. You will be contributing to science and possibly the discovery of the next big antibiotic to help us fight back against the bugs!