Sean Brady, associate professor in the Laboratory of Genetically Encoded Small Molecules at Rockefeller University in New York, has a simple request: He’s asking people to go out into their backyards, collect a bit of dirt, put it in a Ziploc bag and send it to his lab.
He wants dirt samples from just about anywhere so they can be analyzed for organisms that may guide the discovery of new antibiotic compounds—small, genetically encoded molecules. Those molecules could help address what the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) and many others in the medical and scientific fields believe to be one of the most pressing issues of our time: the growing resistance to antibiotics that is taking root throughout the developed world.
Antibiotics have helped millions of people fight illnesses that not so long ago could have been drawn-out and debilitating, if not fatal. Over time, however—and, many argue, largely because of their overusage—human beings have become much more resistant to antibiotics. This has reduced their effectiveness and has led us toward what the WHO terms “a post-antibiotic era” in which common infections that have been quickly treatable with antibiotics, like stomach bugs, ear, nose and throat issues, and urinary tract infections, could once again rear their ugly, dangerous heads.
The developed world, where the fallout from increased resistance to common antibiotics is going to hit the hardest, is only just beginning to feel its impact, Brady said.
“There’s a pressing need for new antibiotics because what we’re seeing today is going to become an even greater problem for the first world in the future,” he said.
Most drugs, from antibiotics to anti-cancer drugs, come from bacteria in nature, Brady said, but because repeated analysis has thrown up the same kinds of bacteria, “people assumed we’ve found them all, and therefore there are no more drugs to be made.”
The world is a huge place, though, with richly varied soil. Brady is convinced that there’s a plethora of uncultured bacteria that produce molecules research has thus far missed and that could, if properly studied and analyzed, be used to make brand new drugs—or, new and better derivatives of existing drugs that have become less effective.
“Just think that under your feet, in your backyard, there are bugs that are going to make brand new versions of drugs we currently use,” Brady said. “Or, maybe there is a better version of any of the billion-dollar drugs currently on the market. Nature is the greatest lab and, as far as we’re concerned, we haven’t even scratched the surface of what is out there. We do believe, though, that there’s great potential with studying soil samples from around the world.”