Blog: New antibiotic family discovered. What does this mean for humanity?

Date 13.02.2018

Antibiotic resistance and the potential health implications for humans has been making headlines over the past few months. Today, it was announced that a new family of antibiotics has been discovered, living in soil, triggering excitement from scientists and health professionals. Dr Alexandra Woodacre, Lecturer in Molecular Bioscience at the University of Northampton, blogs about the potential implications.

Antibiotic resistance is an international public health crisis, and we are facing the real threat of a post-antibiotic era where current antibiotics no longer work and common infections will once again become killers.

One of the factors contributing to the resistance epidemic is the lack of new types of antibiotics being discovered, and Human Bioscience and Biology students from the University of Northampton have been contributing to an international project to search for new antibiotics.

The Microbiology Society’s ‘Antibiotics Unearthed’ initiative involves universities, schools and members of the public from all around the UK taking samples of soil and searching them for organisms that produce antibiotic compounds.  Our students have isolated 34 antibiotic producers from locations all around Northamptonshire and will identify them using DNA sequencing, before presenting their findings at the society’s annual conference in Birmingham in April.

A new study published today from New York’s Rockefeller University took a different approach, and instead of trying to grow microorganisms from soil that might produce new antibiotics, the researchers simply extracted DNA directly from soil samples taken from all over the USA.

They then searched the genes of the millions of microorganisms found in the soil to identify common genes that might code for a new type of antibiotic, which they named malacidin.  The genes for synthesising malacidin were then used to produce it artificially in their lab, and malacidin successfully killed a range of infectious bacteria including MRSA and other drug-resistant species.

I think this inspired piece of research is particularly exciting because they have taken their idea from bare soil all the way to successfully treating the wounds of rats with MRSA infections.  It shows that the new approach works and although malacidin won’t be available from your GP any time soon, it can now be tested for use in humans and it may well be prescribed to you in the future.

The techniques that have been developed here have huge potential for the discovery of further natural products, especially if you look at different types of samples or DNA sequences. It could even be used to discover novel genes and products from other species such as plants in the rainforests that may also produce life-saving drugs.