Bioethics Blogs

Digging Up New Antibiotics

iChip being removed from dirt

Caption: Microfluidic chip being used by scientists to search dirt for new sources of antibiotics.
Credit: Slava Epstein/Northeastern U.

Last fall, President Obama issued an Executive Order aimed at combating a growing public health threat: antibiotic-resistant infections that claim the lives of 23,000 Americans every year [1]. So, I’m pleased to report that biomedical research has made some exciting progress on this front with the discovery of what promises to be a powerful new class of antibiotic drugs—the first such discovery in more than 25 years.

There are two significant things about this feat. The first is that the new antibiotic, called teixobactin, not only has the ability to kill a wide range of infection-causing bacteria, but to kill them in a way that may greatly reduce the problem of resistance. The second is that researchers identified teixobactin using an ingenious approach that enhances our ability to search one of nature’s richest sources of potential antibiotics: soil [2, 3].

That’s right, plain old dirt—in this case, soil from a grassy field in Maine—yielded the biological lead that enabled a team led by NIH-supported researchers at Boston’s Northeastern University to develop teixobactin. Sound bizarre? In fact, many of the antibiotic drugs prescribed today were originally derived from the natural toxins that soil-dwelling bacteria and fungi use to kill their microbial competitors. However, over the past few decades, scouring the soil for new antibiotics has proven to be extremely difficult because the vast majority of dirt-dwelling microbes can’t be grown under traditional microbiological conditions in the laboratory.

In a study published in the journal Nature, Northeastern’s Kim Lewis and Slava Epstein describe the innovative approach they used to cultivate these elusive bugs in laboratory conditions.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.