Mining for Antibiotics, Right Under Our Noses

Carl Zimmer in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_792 Sep. 12 17.30“Microorganisms are the best chemists on the planet,” declaredMichael A. Fischbach, a chemist himself at the University of California, San Francisco.

For evidence, Dr. Fischbach points to the many lifesaving drugs that microorganisms produce. In 1928, for example, Alexander Fleming discovered that mold wafting into his lab produced a bacteria-killing chemical that he dubbed penicillin.

Later generations of scientists found drugmaking microorganisms in more exotic locales. In 1951, a missionary in Borneo named William Bouw shipped a box of jungle dirt to Edmund C. Kornfield, a chemist at Eli Lilly. In that soil, Dr. Kornfield discovered a species of bacteria that made a potent antibiotic, later named vancomycin.

Scientists today are still searching jungles, oceans and other corners of the world for microorganisms that make medicines. But in a new study published Thursday in the journal Cell, Dr. Fischbach and his colleagues suggest that we should also be looking inward.

Analyzing the bacteria that live in our bodies, the scientists identified genes for making over 3,000 previously unknown molecules that may prove to be useful drugs.

“Nobody had thought to look that close to home,” said Dr. Fischbach.

More here.