Science 3 min read

New Class of Powerful Antibiotics From Soil Bacteria

Scientists show how to synthesize powerful microbial agents in the lab after figuring out how they’re naturally produced by a strain of soil bacteria.

Image courtesy of Shutterstuck

Image courtesy of Shutterstuck

One of the biggest microbiology myths to date is that in the human body, there are ten times more bacterial cells than human cells.

That’s not true because recent studies have shown the 10:1 ratio to be very exaggerated, and that’s more likely to be one-to-one. But the fact that bacteria don’t considerably outnumber our own cells doesn’t make their presence any less critical to our survival.

Outside the human body, we find bacteria pretty much everywhere. They’re in the soil, air, water, including the harshest habitats Earth has to offer, like volcano springs.

Divided over different groups, like decomposers and mutualists, soil bacteria play a crucial role in many biological and ecological processes.

Soil Bacteria, Natural Antibiotic Factories

In the face of rising superbugs and the growing antibiotic resistance crisis, scientists are hard at work prospecting for new classes of antibiotics. And, bacteria living in the dirt may have something to help them with.

Obafluorin is a natural broad-spectrum antibiotic agent made by a strain of fluorescent soil bacteria that live on plant roots.

Although obafluorin was first discovered in 1984, it wasn’t until 2017 that the enzyme responsible for its antimicrobial activity was genetically described. Timothy Wencewicz, associate professor of chemistry, was one of the co-authors of the study on the multi-part enzyme, called nonribosomal peptide synthetase (ObiF1).

Now, professor Wencewicz and his colleagues from the Washington University in St. Louis and the University at Buffalo, are back with new insights.

In their new work, the team constructed the first pictures of the enzyme showing how proteins in the ObiF1 molecules are stitched together in 3D space. A picture isn’t meant to indulge our visual curiosity, though that’s also much appreciated because the structure of an enzyme is fundamental to its biological functions.

“We were able to catch some of the building blocks of the molecules captured inside some of the enzyme-active sites — in the act of doing the chemistry,” Wencewicz said. “This helped us to connect small molecules to the protein, and fill in some of the mechanistic gaps in how the molecules are created.”

Using genetics, the Wencewicz team revealed the biosynthetic mechanism used by soil bacteria to make obafluorin and were able to replicate this process in the lab.

There’s a long way to go between discovering an antibiotic in nature and developing it as a commercial drug. However, with this new research, it is now possible to “quickly and easily create analogs of the natural product in the laboratory — to optimize its molecular properties and bioactivity.”

Bearing testament to a potential future significance, Washington University has filed for a U.S. utility patent to protect this soil bacteria-enabled technology.

Read More: Natural Bacteria Could Soon Replace Pesticides

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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