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 tenfold then we'd be in much better situation."
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 50 years.