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,"

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz