Digging for Discovery

Curiosity Sent an International Team of Scientists Digging in the Soil for a Solution to One of Medicine’s Most Pressing Challenges.

The accidental discovery in 1928 of the antibacterial properties of penicillium fungi by Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming ushered in a revolution in modern medicine. The development and use of penicillin, tetracycline, erythromycin and other antibiotics in the years that followed has saved by some estimates as many as 100 million to 200 million lives. 

But the widespread use of antibiotics has also led to the rise of superbugs, including E. coli and staphylococcus aureus, which are resistant to many drugs. According to the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance 700,000 lives are lost every year to drug-resistant infections, and these numbers are expected to grow.

  A picture of Dr Kim Lewis   A picture of Dr Kim Lewis

What If the Solution is Laying Beneath Our Feet?

Scientists around the globe are exploring ways to stop the growing threat of superbugs with the use of antibodiesgene editing and even nanotechnology and light. A study published last year, however, suggests that one answer to antibiotic-resistant bacteria might be – as counterintuitive as it sounds – a newly discovered antibiotic.

It’s called “teixobactin” (pronounced “takes-oh-BACK-tin”) and an international team of researchers discovered it in the dirt. It does something no other antibiotic has done before: It kills even the most virulent superbugs without the superbugs developing any signs of resistance. 

“Our impression is that nature produced a compound that evolved to be free of resistance,” the study’s lead author, Director of Northeastern University’s Antimicrobial Discovery Center, Kim Lewis, PhD said in a post to the University’s website. “This challenges the dogma that we’ve operated under that bacteria will always develop resistance. Well, maybe not in this case.”

Even more remarkable than the discovery of teixobactin is the innovation that allowed Dr. Lewis and his team to make its discovery in the first place.

How Curiosity Led to the iChip

If teixobactin works as well in clinical trials with humans as it has in lab studies with mice, it won’t be the first time that soil bacteria has been harnessed for use as an antibiotic: streptomycin and tetracycline were also discovered in the dirt.

But while the earth teems with potential antibiotics, most have proven unusable once removed from the soil; in fact, 99% of all soil bacteria fizzle out in the petri dish a phenomenon referred to as the Great Plate Count Anomaly.

Curious about what might be lurking in the 99% of unculturable soil bacteria, Northeastern University Microbiology Professor Slavo Epstein, PhD partnered with his colleague Dr. Lewis and graduate student Tammi Kaeberlein to develop a small chamber that allowed soil bacteria to continue to access the nutrients in the bacteria’s natural environment. The chamber allowed them to grow 30,000% more bacterial colonies compared to the standard agar plate petri dish. What it didn’t do so well was to isolate the bacteria they wanted to study.

Next, the Northeastern University team built a device that allowed bacterial cells to grow individually, in isolation – the “isolation chip,” or iChip. Their iChip holds 192 mini-chambers, each with an individual bacterial cell.  

Using the iChip, the team successfully grew microbes from California rainforest mud, as well as from saliva, salt marsh, and wastewater bioreactors.

Teixobactin is just one of the antibiotics Dr. Lewis’s team was able to discover with help of the iChip. This innovative device, born of curiosity, holds within it the potential to discover many more antibiotics, to change the landscape of antibiotic treatment, and to save lives.

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