Our Antibiotic Future Found in the Dirt


When you think of scientific discoveries what do you imagine? Maybe researchers gathered in a lab discussing the contents of a petri dish or test tube? Though many innovations happen in this type of environment, new scientific discoveries can also emerge from the least likely of places. This was the case in a recent game-changing antibiotic discovery; the source of the antibiotic – a pile of dirt.

A team of scientists from the Antimicrobial Discovery Center at Northwestern University and NovoBiotic Pharmaceuticals near Boston led this discovery using an innovative new technology. This new technology allows microbial substances, or potential antibiotics, to grow in their natural soil environment instead of a lab. Since only one percent of microbes can be successfully grown in a lab, this new approach opens up the other 99 percent to research.

The team developed a small device called an iChip that holds a soil sample between two semi-permeable membranes. This device, which is placed back into the soil, acts as a chamber for natural growth to occur at just the right conditions. Once a microbe colony is formed, the sample is domesticated and can be grown in a lab for further testing.

Of the 10,000 strains of bacteria they studied, one bacteria stood out the most for the antibiotic it produced: an antibiotic they called Teixobactin. This antibiotic is promising because of the unique way it interacts with bacteria. Most of our current antibiotics attack bacteria’s proteins and inhibit a variety of cellular functions. This method is effective, but bacteria have developed resistance to these mechanisms and can now grow in the face of many antibiotics.  Teixobactin is different. It kills bacteria by breaking down the cell walls and stopping the growth of new cells by attaching to different lipid structures in the cell wall. This slows the development of resistances and allows the antibiotic to be effective for a longer period of time.  

The introduction of a new antibiotic that is less likely to develop resistance is a major advancement for the medical community. Historically, drug-resistant bacteria develop faster than researchers are able to discover or make new antibiotics to fight them. The result is an enormous population of people who are vulnerable to bacteria that can’t respond to necessary medical intervention.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Each year in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections.” This new antibiotic, theoretically, will be able to cut down some of those numbers.

This new discovery directly impacts our local community too. Antibiotic resistance is increasing both nationally and locally. Every day we see patients with infections with multi-drug resistance bacteria. The discovery of new antibiotics with unique mechanisms of action will provide Utahans more options when confronted with severe infections. 

Currently the antibiotic is being tested in mice with positive results. Human testing is still two years off, but if successful, the benefits of this added resources will be immense.