Fight against superbugs goes underground

Scientists analyse DNA of soil microbes in hunt for next generation of antibiotics

Scientists are pioneering a way of discovering new antibiotics by analysing the entire genetic blueprint of soil microbes which kill their competitors by producing natural toxins. Screening soil microbes for novel antibiotics is a traditional method of discovering new drugs but the rise of resistant strains of "superbugs" is forcing scientists to take a far more radical approach to drug discovery.

One method involves analysing the genes of soil microbes by a process known as "genome mining" – analysing the entire DNA of the micro-organism – to identify new classes of antibiotics that the microbe may have been capable of making before.

"Most clinically useful antibiotics come from soil micro-organisms, soil bacteria and soil fungi, and they make those compounds, we believe, to compete in their natural environment against other soil microbes," said Professor Mervyn Bibb of the John Innes Centre in Norwich.

"Genome mining [involves] the sequencing of these microbes and from this it is apparent that they have the potential to make many more antibiotics than we previously thought. We are devising different genetic tricks to activate or awaken these different cryptic gene clusters to make novel compounds. It's still at an early stage but if we could multiply the number of known antibiotics ten fold then we'd be in much better situation than we are in today."

Once the genes have been found the antibiotics can be synthesised in the lab. It is hoped that by developing new ways of "mining" microbes in the soil in the search for novel antibiotics it will be possible to combat the rising tide of drug-resistant bacteria threatening to overwhelm the health advances of the past half-century.

Since antibiotics were first used during the Second World War they have saved countless lives but a growing number of infectious diseases – from TB to hospital-acquired infections – are becoming resistant to all but a few drugs, and some "superbugs" are resistant to all antibiotics.

Professor Tony Maxwell, head of biological chemistrty at the John Innes Centre, said there was an urgent need to come up with new ways of developing antibiotics because fewer and fewer of the drugs were coming on to the market each year.

"It's largely because they are no longer a really profitable exercise for the big pharma companies and so academic labs like ours have to step in and contribute to the drug-discovery process," Professor Maxwell said. "What we are trying to do is to develop new agents that will be the drugs of the future that will help to combat drug-resistant bacteria."

Another way of discovering new chemicals with antibiotic effects is to analyse the genetic and metabolic makeup of disease-causing bacteria to identify weak points that scientists can "target" with tailor-made drugs.

Scientists at the John Innes Centre have found one such drug target in the bacterium that causes tuberculosis, which infects a third of the world's population and suffers a growing problem with drug-resistant strains.

"It's fascinating in that this target actually tricks the bacteria into suicidal self poisoning and the data we have so far suggests that this target is as good as the current front-line drug," said Steph Bornemann, of the John Innes Centre.

One example where a new antibiotic is needed is for TB, which scientists once believed could be eradicated. But it has since re-emerged as a major global health threat and some strains are resistant to present drugs.

The scientists hope that they will be able to develop an antibiotic that can cause TB microbes to commit suicide. "It's very much at the first stage of the drug-development pipeline, and that timescale is quite long," Dr Bornemann said. "We talking many years and a significant amount of investment,"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Supporting role: at the Supreme Court, Rhodes was accompanied by a famous friend, the actor Benedict Cumberbatch
booksPianist James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to stop the injunction of his memoirs
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan
filmDheepan, film review
Sport
Steven Gerrard scores for Liverpool
sport
News
peopleComedian star of Ed Sullivan Show was mother to Ben Stiller
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?