They say that playing around in soil can make you sick, but soil is exactly where scientists in Boston, Massachusetts found teixobactin, a new antibiotic that may work against drug-resistant bacteria.
The scientists were able to find teixobactin because they were able to study the bacteria in the soil, rather than in the lab. “Most antibiotics were produced by screening soil microorganisms, but this limited resource of cultivable bacteria was overmined by the 1960s,” the researchers wrote in Nature. “Synthetic approaches to produce antibiotics have been unable to replace this platform. Uncultured bacteria make up approximately 99% of all species in external environments, and are an untapped source of new antibiotics.”
“Most soil germs can’t be grown in the lab and studied,” MIT Technology Review adds, explaining the process by which the scientists were able to isolate their germs outside. “The researchers diluted dirt, including some from their own backyards, to capture a single soil microbe in each of 306 tiny holes on the [a microchip’s] surface. They then put the chip in a tub of dirt, allowing the germs to remain in their natural environment.”
Out of the 10,000 strains of bacteria that were studied that way, teixobactin looks promising because it “was found to kill bacteria by breaking down its protective cell walls and stopping the growth of new cells,” Newsweek reports.
But Gizmodo warns us not to get our hopes up. “Teixobactin only works against bacteria without another membrane around those cell walls,” it notes. “That includes bacteria like MRSA and TB, but not other worrisome ones like Klebsiella and E. coli, which have evolved a lot of resistance to existing antibiotics.” Plus, Gizmodo notes that teixobactin still has to be tested for human safety and efficacy, which could take several years. Still, the process of being able to study bacteria outside of a petri dish may be more important than the discovery of teixobactin itself. “In the meantime,” Gizmodo writes, “the search for new antibiotic candidates is on, more fiercely than ever.”